March 16, 2010 -- U.S. President Barack Obama glided off the stage to thunderous applause. He had just given a speech that commentators around the world, particularly those in the Muslim world, would characterize within minutes as "historic." "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," he said, and promised to "personally pursue" the establishment of a Palestinian state. Then the president left the great hall of Cairo University and entered a smaller room, where seven journalists had gathered: five Muslims, a Christian and a Jew. Speaking to the men and women from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel and Malaysia, Obama demonstratively praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "A very intelligent man, who's easy to talk to. He has a real sense of history. I believe that Netanyahu has recognized the strategic necessity of achieving peace in the Middle East."
As the Israeli reporter, Nachum Barnea, recalls, Obama was "like a teacher, full of knowledge and persuasiveness."
Eight months later, the president was forced to admit that he had not even come close to reaching the goal he had set for himself. "We overestimated our ability to persuade [both sides] to [negotiate]," he told Time reporter Joe Klein in the White House Oval Office in January. "If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high." It was an astonishing admission.
Never before had a US president enjoyed such trust in the Middle East -- and gambled it away in such a short time. Obama has vacillated to an extent that has confused friend and foe alike, even baffling veteran observers of the region.
At first, he called for a complete freeze on Israeli settlements, including in East Jerusalem, an area claimed by the Palestinians. This position applied for a few months, to the delight of the Palestinians and the unease of right-wing conservatives in the Israeli government.
But when Netanyahu refused to comply, Obama took a step back last September, by calling upon the Israelis to exercise "restraint" in building settlements. He forced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who, after eight years of policies under former US President George W. Bush, had just become accustomed to an Arab-friendly White House, to shake hands with Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu. Soon afterwards, Netanyahu announced a 10-month halt on settlement construction, but it did not include annexed East Jerusalem and various projects in the West Bank. To the Palestinians' chagrin, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Netanyahu's decision as an exemplary step.
Finally, last Tuesday, US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Jerusalem, where he assured his hosts of Washington's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security" -- only to discover, hours later, that the Israeli interior ministry had just approved the construction of 1,600 housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. Biden was so angry that he showed up an hour-and-a-half late for a dinner with Netanyahu and his wife. "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem," he said afterwards. "It is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now."
Back to the Drawing Board
It was undoubtedly a brazen insult to Israel's powerful ally. Nevertheless, sympathy with the Americans has been muted. "Mr. Obama has himself to blame," the Financial Times remarked drily.
Back to the drawing board, in other words. The "indirect talks" that Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell wants to get up and running again are the same point at which a Middle East peace process began in Madrid 19 years ago, a process that has failed to produce a Palestinian state to this day.
Biden has plenty of experience in the Middle East. But his experience shows that -- even after six Israeli prime ministers -- Secretary of State James Baker's 1991 complaint still holds true today: "Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive."
The applause for Obama's Cairo speech died away in the vast expanses of the Arabian Desert long ago. "He says all the right things, but implementation is exactly the way it has always been," says Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
Obama's failure in the Middle East is but one example of his weakness, though a particularly drastic and vivid one. The president, widely celebrated when he took office, cannot claim to have achieved sweeping successes in any area. When he began his term more than a year ago, he came across as an ambitious developer who had every intention of completing multiple projects at once. But after a year, none of those projects has even progressed beyond the early construction phase. And in some cases, the sites are nothing but deep excavations.
On his first day in office, Obama promised to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. But it is still in operation today, and Obama doesn't know where to put the prisoners.
He also hasn't managed to come to grips with the gamblers on Wall Street who helped trigger the financial crisis. When his advisor Paul Volcker sought to prohibit major banks from engaging in at least the riskiest practices, the Wall Street lobby fired back immediately.
From health reform to climate change, Obama has not yet managed any significant breakthroughs. When the US Capitol was engulfed in a blizzard in early February, the family of Republican Senator James Inhofe built an igloo outside and placed a cardboard sign in front of it that read: "Al Gore's New Home," and "Honk if you [heart] Global Warming."
Obama's critics are now equally disrespectful in their discussions of his foreign policy.
He set out to negotiate with Iran. He courted the regime, sent the Iranians a greeting to mark the Persian New Year, and even sent a letter to revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei. But the end-of-the-year deadline he had loudly proclaimed passed without incident, and yet Iran's uranium centrifuges in Natanz and Qom are still up and running.
Although Iraq held an election two Sundays ago, the results are so ambiguous, and the situation is so unclear, that Ray Odierno, the commanding general of US forces in Iraq, is thinking about delaying the withdrawal of his troops -- which would represent yet another breach of Obama's campaign promises.
Obama has turned his attention to Afghanistan, sending an additional 30,000 troops to the country. But even that measure was announced and then withdrawn in the same speech. The troops were deployed in 2009, but their withdrawal is set to begin by mid-2011. By announcing his plans for the deployment and withdrawal of the troops at the same time, Obama didn't exactly create the impression of supreme decisiveness among America's enemies in Afghanistan.
Sacrificing Principles for Security
Despite having promised, in his inaugural speech, that he would not sacrifice principles for security, this is precisely what his opponents say Obama is doing today. He is making compromises, which has upset even his supporters. He hasn't brought himself to back the protest movement in Iran, he has voiced only timid support for human rights in China, and he did not agree to meet with the Dalai Lama until after a second request had been made. In Saudi Arabia, he bows down before King Abdullah instead of championing democracy and women's rights. And in Africa, he looked on as a State Department backtracked after having referred to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's criticism of a Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets as "lots of words ... not necessarily a lot of sense."
Obama can hardly count on gaining the support of allies, partly because he doesn't pay much attention to them. The American president doesn't have a single strong ally among European heads of state. "The president is said to be reluctant to take time to build relationships with foreign leaders," writes the Washington Post.
This approach has its consequences. When Obama was campaigning for his vision of a nuclear-free world, French President Nicolas Sarkozy put him in his place before the United Nations Security Council. "We live in a real world," the Frenchman said derisively, "not a virtual world."
In the Middle East, the irresolute Obama is missing an opportunity to bring about peace that he -- and probably a number of his successors -- will not be offered in its current form anytime soon. Never before in Israeli history have Jews and Arabs been as united as they are today, in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat. Indeed, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister has spoken openly of the need for a military strike against Iran.
SPIEGEL has learned that Western intelligence services believe that the Saudis would even provide the Israelis with access to their airspace for such a strike. This stands in contrast to the Americans, who -- with good reason -- are unwilling to allow them to fly over Iraq.
In the face of the pressure from Iran, Arab regimes are more willing to compromise than they have been in a long time. Before Biden's visit, they unanimously called upon the Palestinians to enter into a new round of negotiations with Israel. Today, many Arab leaders support peace in the Middle East, their earlier positions on the issue notwithstanding.
The Arab states are no longer the ones who benefit from the Middle East conflict. Instead, it is the Iranian leadership, whose ruthless rhetoric and nuclear program has the Arabs just as nervous as the Israelis.
Nevertheless, Obama continues to stand alone on the world stage, seemingly without a goal and oceans removed from achieving a solution to the toxic Middle East conflict. US historian Walter Russell Mead recently wrote of Obama in the journal Foreign Relations that "the conflicting impulses influencing how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart -- and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter."
Such words could be a death sentence in US politics. Carter is seen as a likeable failure, a president no one took seriously.
But in the Middle East, of all places, Carter is still ahead of Obama. He managed to bring the Israelis and Egyptians to one table and, in 1979, celebrated the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords. As a result, Israel withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, which it had occupied since 1967, and evacuated its settlements there.
Slim Chances of Success in Israel and Palestine
Obama's chances of achieving a similar success between the Israelis and Palestinians today are far from promising. The Palestinians no longer trust him, and the Israelis don't take him seriously, as Prime Minister Netanyahu's "apology" to Vice President Biden demonstrated last week. Netanyahu said that he regretted the "unfortunate timing" of the settlement announcement. Netanyahu's spokesman claimed that the premier had not known about the settlement plans -- one of the biggest construction projects in Jerusalem.
It isn't as if the US government had no leverage to convince Israel to at least make minor changes to its settlement policy. The Jewish state receives about $2.5 billion (€1.8 billion) in annual military aid alone from Washington. Some of Obama's predecessors had no qualms about threatening Israel with cuts in aid. President Gerald Ford did it in 1975, because he felt that the Israelis were too inflexible in negotiations with Egypt. President George H.W. Bush held back $10 billion in US government loan guarantees until Israel agreed to participate in the planned Madrid peace conference. Even his son, President George W. Bush, froze some of the loan guarantees in 2003, when Israel began building a "security fence" that penetrated deeply into Palestinian territory.
Obama, on the other hand, has shied away from setting tough conditions for Israel. Many of his critics blame that stance on his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, 50.
In Washington, every Democrat who would like to but doesn't dare to criticize the president is turning against Emanuel. They see him as a dark Rasputin exerting his virtually hypnotic control over Obama.
In Arab countries, many believe Emanuel is an Israel agent, and they cite his background as proof. The son of a Zionist underground fighter, he served in the Israeli army as a civilian volunteer, despite being an American citizen.
Obama's many mistakes in the Middle East are reflected in the low opinion of Emanuel held among Prime Minister Netanyahu's staff members, who see him as a despicable figure. In their view, it was Emanuel who incited Obama against Israel and was responsible for Jerusalem's and Washington's troubles with the settlements.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan