Mr. Obama’s Muddle East

Ken Blackwell Former Ohio Secretary of State
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President Obama came into office pledging a new approach to the Middle East. We were told that his middle name — Husseinwould give him unprecedented entrée to the corridors of power in that troubled region — and to the Arab street.

We thought a Mideast policy could not be more confused or more feckless than Jimmy Carter’s. Carter acceded to, if he did not welcome, the ouster of the Shah in 1979. The Shah was horrible in Carter’s eyes. Well, the Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullahs who replaced the Shah were even worse. And still are.

Mr. Obama pledged an “open hand” to the mullahs in Tehran. It was spat on. When thousands of young Iranians massed in the streets demanding democracy, it looked like a Hope and Change rally. But this administration turned its back on them and promised to avoid “meddling” in the mullahs’ affairs.

President Obama respects Iran’s sovereignty, we were told at that time. Iran, of course, respects nobody’s sovereignty. Ask the Lebanese, especially the Maronite Christians.

When he went to London, Mr. Obama bowed to the King of Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah is an absolute monarch whose rule is maintained by the sword. Dissidents are beheaded — usually on Fridays after mosque. But we have nonetheless had an arms-length relationship with this desert despot and his extended family.

Now, we read that Abdullah is so upset with President Obama that he is extending feelers to Moscow and Beijing. Abdullah is afraid that the “Arab Spring” spoken of by the president may turn out to be not so much a spring season as a bed spring — ready to bounce longtime rulers right out of bed.

President Obama made a point of going to al-Azhar Mosque in Egypt to deliver his overture to what he calls “the Muslim world.” Strange, he never talks about a Christian world. Nor, in choosing Egypt as his venue, did he acknowledge the fact that one-tenth of Egyptians are Coptic Christians. They found it hard to hang on before the president of the United States referred to their country as part of the Muslim world.

President Mubarak seemed to be firmly in control when Mr. Obama delivered his Cairo speech. For thirty years, Hosni Mubarak had maintained a cold peace — but a peace nonetheless — with neighboring Israel. Now, in the face of massive street demonstrations orchestrated in part by the murderously anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration gave Mubarak full support, then less than full support, and finally a sharp shove off stage.

If Mubarak’s rule was bad, we may soon find that a new alliance between an Egyptian military we fund and the Muslim Brotherhood is even worse.

What was the point of going to a nest of Muslim Brotherhood activity to deliver that 2009 Obama address if not to puff up their stature and their influence? Osama bin Laden tells us that Arabs like to go with “the strong horse.” Did Mr. Obama saddle up Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood as the strong horse with that Cairo speech?

President Obama delivered another Mideast speech, this one in Turkey. That nation — a member of NATO since NATO’s founding — was once viewed as the strongest U.S. ally in a region dominated by hostile Muslim regimes. Culturally Muslim but politically secular, Turkey once cooperated quietly but effectively with Israel. No more.

Prime Minister Erdogan’s government has lurched toward Islamism. Erdogan recently promoted a flotilla whose object was to break the Israeli arms embargo of Gaza.

Now, we come to the only country in the Middle East that has been a constant U.S. ally, that is the only functioning democracy in the region, that has the only political system in the region where religious minority rights have any standing — Israel. We cannot quote any Obama speeches to the Knesset, but he recently met with Israeli President Shimon Peres in the White House. He said: “…with the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it’s more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Those winds of change prove the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the cause of discontent on the Arab street. This whole region-wide ferment began in December when a poor Tunisian street vendor — distraught at not being able to pay off crooked cops who demanded protection money — set himself on fire. And that flame spread across the Middle East. No Israelis. No Palestinians.

In the midst of vast changes, Mr. Obama is able to derive precisely the wrong message. He has surely brought change to the Middle East. It’s now the Muddle East.

Ken Blackwell, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and is a Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council.