Middle East


The Middle East will likely be a major foreign policy priority for Barack Obama's incoming administration. In this Memo to the President, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo that Mr. Obama's election has generated high expectations that change is coming and concern that those expectations may be too high.

PETER KENYON: Perhaps nothing better illustrates that low esteem in which President Bush is held in this part of the world than the joyous embrace of Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at the president on this farewell visit to Baghdad.

The Jordanian parliament observed a moment of silence in honor of the insult. In Egypt, one man offered his daughter in marriage to Zeidi, while a musician panned new lyrics to a new song lionizing the shoe-thrower. Shaaban Abdel Rahim has already released a song that expresses the fervent hope that, quote, "Obama will be better than Bush."

(Soundbite of music)


KENYON: In such an atmosphere, President-elect Obama has already restored a certain amount of goodwill toward the U.S. simply by not being George W. Bush. Faleh Jabar, head of the Iraq Studies Institute, took time out from a security conference in Bahrain to describe the region's reaction to the American vote.

Mr. FALEH JABAR (Director, Iraq Studies Institute): From the viewpoint of the region, it's like a miracle. I mean a guy who his father's Kenyan, his father's a Muslim. He's not the beloved of the big corporations and the big corporate money. So all this has created a kind of magic. Now, I fear this magic.

KENYON: That fear is due to the exceedingly high expectations now facing the next administration. Toby Doge, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, calls it hope and awe, and says Mr. Obama will enjoy an international honeymoon even if he doesn't introduce dramatic changes in foreign policy. Dodge recalls that Bill Clinton's Middle East policies were, in his view, depressingly unoriginal.

Mr. TOBY DOGE (Analyst, International Institute for Strategic Studies): He dressed them up in a kind marvelous, soft-power public relations coup that somewhat detracted from the lack of movement. But I think Obama can learn a lot from Clinton's deft use of publicity, and I'm sure he will. But what he desperately needs to do is marry that with progress on the big solvable issues, while deploying reassuring noises on Iran on the Arab side of the Gulf.

KENYON: Dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions through engagement and diplomacy rather than the threat of military action tops the agenda for many Arab and Middle East analysts. If the Obama administration is willing to sit and talk with the Iranians, many here will breathe a sigh of relief.

For some, the key is severing the political alliance between Iran and Syria. Arab officials say on paper that shouldn't be hard given Syria's historic distaste for extreme Islamist ideology, but in practice that most likely means progress must be made on the other leading agenda item for the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mideast analysts say, yes, Damascus might break with Iran if it can get the Golan Heights back from Israel and end its isolation from the West. But making that happen at a time of political instability in the region and economic turmoil worldwide is a tall order indeed.

One Bush administration policy that many in the region hope will be modified, not jettisoned, is the push for democracy. Mona Makram Ebeid, a former Egyptian legislator, says President Bush's penchant for, in her words, imposing democracy backfired, leading Arab regimes to become even more authoritarian.

Ms. MONA MAKRAM EBEID (Former Parliament Member, Egypt): So people here wonder about the direct connection between autocratic regimes and the support of the U.S. to them. Justification for that was that they need stability in the region. They have neither stability nor democracy. The imposition of democracy has led to a regression in democratic freedoms, and causing most democrats, like myself, to shun any involvement with the U.S.

KENYON: Promoting democracy in the Middle East may not be at the top of President-elect Obama's agenda, but neither will he be able to ignore it, analysts say, with elections coming up in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Egypt in the next three years. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

WERTHEIMER: This is Morning Edition, from NPR News.

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