Mideast Will Define Obama’s Legacy

Barack Obama completes his first year in the White House today, and it’s hard to resist the temptation of rushing in with the verdict on his performance. However, given the extraordinary challenges this US president has faced even before he walked into the White House, it is more complicated than summing it up as success 
or failure.

One year is perhaps too short a period to judge a president who has inherited a mindboggling mess at home and abroad. But judged Obama will be, especially in the Middle East where his unusual background and his powerful message of change have kindled unprecedented hopes and expectations. And the hopes and expectations about finally bringing peace to the Middle East haven’t just swept the region but captured the imagination of the world at large.

Those soaring expectations had been hardly unjustified, considering Obama launched his Middle East peace initiative in his first week in office swiftly dispatching George Mitchell to the region. His first executive decision ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay within a year set the tone for Obama’s engagement with the Muslim world. His inaugural speech talked of exploring a “new way forward” with the world’s Muslims, as he tried to undo the bitterness and confrontation of the George W Bush years.

In his address to Turkey’s parliament and later university students in Cairo, he reached out to the Muslim world like no Western or US leader had ever done—or perhaps ever will. Without apologising for pro-Israel US policies, Obama talked of justice, freedom and equal rights for the Palestinian people. He talked of his own Muslim inheritance and family to bridge the chasm of the West and Islamic world.

The Middle East, and the larger Islamic world, hasn’t still forgotten that historic, powerful speech in Cairo nor has it given up on Obama’s promise of change and the ‘audacity of hope’. However, it’s getting impatient for the change this amazing, young president promised. A year is perhaps too short a time to judge anyone, let alone judge a US president over a complex issue such as the Middle East. But there’s a growing feeling in the region that Obama’s initial enthusiasm for finding a solution for the Palestinian-Israel tangle has given way to helpless indifference, or even apathy. No one ever suggested resolving the Middle East was a child’s play. It wouldn’t be festering all these years — for nearly a century — if this issue were that simple. But this is precisely why the US has to do more and flex its muscles, as it has been doing elsewhere all these years to protect its interests, to push the Israelis to deliver on their commitments and obligations. Israel has to be singled out because the Palestinians, for their part, have been waiting, endlessly waiting all these years for peace, justice and a piece of whatever remains of this moth-eaten land.

The US ally and biggest recipient of US aid has been openly defying and mocking Obama by expanding Jewish settlements on what little remains of the Palestinian land. Even that charade of “peace talks” is over. And Obama’s envoy, George Mitchell, seems to have given up after numerous futile trips to the region. This must change if Obama wants to be remembered as a successful leader. For, it’s the Middle East that will eventually determine his legacy.

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