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Analysis: Obama's grand plan for Mideast shrinks

Monday - 1/13/2014, 11:30am  ET

FILE - In this Jan. 11, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama shakes hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the end of their news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Five years after pledging to remake the U.S. relationship with the broader Middle East and improve America's image in the Muslim world, the Obama administration's regional strategy appears to have come unhinged. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

MATTHEW LEE
AP Diplomatic Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Five years after pledging to remake the U.S. relationship with the broader Middle East and improve America's image in the Muslim world, the Obama administration's regional strategy appears to have come unhinged.

President Barack Obama has been confronted by fast-moving and ominous developments from Afghanistan to Tunisia, amid a bitter public power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has adjusted his first term's grand plan to restore Washington's standing and influence.

Now, it's a smaller vision that seems to rely on ad hoc responses aimed at merely keeping the United States relevant in an increasingly volatile and hostile atmosphere.

His administration has been forced to deal with three years of civil war in Syria. A Western-backed opposition is struggling to topple an autocratic government and repel Islamic fighters who also are destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, where al-Qaida has resurged less than three years after Obama withdrew U.S. forces.

The U.S. is struggling to identify a coherent position in Egypt after the military ouster of the country's first democratically elected president. The administration tried its best to avoid calling the power transfer a coup.

It is losing patience with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is refusing to sign a security agreement with the U.S. The pact would allow the U.S. to leave some troops in the country to help train and assist Karzai's army in keeping the Taliban at bay after America's longest conflict ends Dec. 31.

Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal against resistance from both sides, in a quest dismissed by some as quixotic.

Yet apart from Kerry's efforts, Obama's national security team seems to have settled on a largely hands-off, do-no-harm approach to developments in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt.

This has attracted criticism and concern, not least from traditional U.S. allies such as the Saudis, who like the Israelis and many members of Congress are wary, if not outright opposed to the administration's engagement with Iran over its nuclear program.

Administration officials, of course, are quick to deny suggestions of indecision, weakness or, worse, political expedience.

They say the president is adopting carefully crafted, pragmatic and diplomatic initiatives for each hot spot -- initiatives designed to reduce what current officials believe was President George W. Bush's reliance on military might and pressure tactics.

While the crises engulfing the Middle East cannot be blamed on Obama, there are growing fears that the U.S.'s Mideast policy has become rudderless and reactive, and may be contributing to worsening conditions and a rise of Islamic extremism, notably in Syria and Iraq.

The administration has been accused of neglecting those countries while focusing on an elusive Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

"The deterioration in this region is just astounding," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters at a news conference in Jerusalem just three days into the New Year as Kerry was making his 10th peacemaking trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"Israel is surrounded by regimes falling apart on all sides. The Iranians are marching toward a nuclear capability. Syria is becoming a cancer infecting the whole region. And I yearn for peace. But more than anything else, I yearn for leadership -- leadership for my country to be accounted for at a time when the world needs American leadership."

An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is "an important goal and aspiration and would be great for the world," he said, criticizing the administration in the same city where Kerry was on his 10th peacemaking trip.

"But I'll be honest with you, as Syria falls into chaos with 130,000 dead, and the king of Jordan and Lebanon deal with the effects of a raging war in Syria, as Iraq begins to fall apart, as the Iranians enrich, we have to put this in the context of the world at large," Graham said.

Criticism from Republicans such as Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who echoed his colleague's sentiments at the Jerusalem news conference, is to be expected. But it is coming from other quarters as well.

Senior members of the Saudi royal family have disparaged the United States on Syria and voiced their skepticism of the rapprochement with Iran.

Saudi frustration has become so intense that the kingdom took the unprecedented step of turning down a seat on the U.N. Security Council to protest inaction on Syria, and last week announced a $3 billion gift to the Lebanese army to help it battle extremists.

While publicly welcoming Kerry's peace efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned against his diplomacy with Iran and tried to scuttle it.

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