There is a power vacuum in the Arab Middle East. The region effectively has no leader that the people are proud of and can look up to. With the exception of the newly democratic yet unstable Iraq, the rulers of Arab countries are either authoritarian dictators – like Mubarak of Egypt or Assad of Syria – or equally authoritarian monarchs – like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
They’re corrupt. They trample on human rights. And many of them are dependent on aid from the United States and other Western countries, which makes them look weak in Arab eyes.
What’s worse, this lack of leadership allows other non-Arab Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, Israel and Turkey, to compete for influence in Arab affairs. It also clears the way for non-state actors, like al-Qaida, to gain Arab allegiance.
Do we really want Iran and al-Qaida setting the agenda in the Middle East?
Obviously not. Neither do Arabs. The Obama administration knows this, but what should they do about it?
One choice would be to try and present President Barack Obama as leader and protector of the Arab world. But this wouldn’t work. Arab countries would just view this strategy as another example of Western imperialism. Fortunately, this isn’t what I think the administration is trying to do.
Instead, Obama should take a two-pronged approach. First, he can focus on supporting the Arab world by encouraging economic integration and development.
Second, and perhaps most important, he can attempt to counterbalance the influence of non-Arab Middle Eastern powers. This policy of “counter-intervention” would allow the Arab world to develop and produce its own competent leaders.
The most effective way Obama can achieve this is by finding a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which acts a constant reminder to the Arab world of its embarrassing inability to protect the Arabs living in the Palestinian territories.
Both Iran and Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaida have used the Palestinian cause to obtain Arab support, so bringing an end to this conflict would cut off a main line of support for these groups.
Until recently, Obama was making impressive progress on this issue. Unlike previous American administrations, he was putting pressure on Israel to stop its construction of settlements in Palestinian territories and accept the idea of a Palestinian state.
But last week, he put on the brakes by dropping the settlement freeze as a precondition to peace talks. His administration also criticized a U.N. report that claimed that Israel may be guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in its war with Gaza in January.
But in order for the Arabs to know that Obama will be an unbiased moderator of peace negotiations, he needs to hold Israel responsible for its actions. In the Gaza war, over a thousand Palestinians were killed while only 17 Israelis died. Israel has attempted to point out that it was provoked by Hamas, but does Israel really want to be judged by the same yardstick as a terrorist organization?
If Obama wants to bring peace to achieve peace in Palestine, he needs to keep up the pressure on Israel.