CAIRO: Egyptians are not happy with the way the US is involved in the Middle East, a new poll recently found.
A June poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that less than one-third of the people in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey had a favorable view of the United States.
Arab governments are looking for change in US policy in the Middle East after the midterm congressional elections, hoping a politically weakened President George W. Bush will talk with Iran and Syria, show greater interest in the Palestinians and find a way out of the crisis in Iraq.
Israel too is watching for any sign of change in US strategy especially toward the Palestinians, Syria and Iran.
The whole region is volatile and it cannot face more problems and challenges, Arab League official Hesham Youssef said in a recent interview. They cannot leave it like this, neither in Iraq nor in Gaza nor in Lebanon. More conflicts could be ahead.
The Bush administration came into office in 2001 committed to reshaping the political map of the Middle East, which was suffering from authoritarian regimes, Islamic extremism, the conflict with Israel and sluggish economies.
Bush has spoken repeatedly of his dream of creating a new Middle East. But five years later, most analysts believe few things have improved. And, US influence in the region is at a low point, in part because despite Saddam Hussein s overthrow, Iraq has never stabilized.
Virtually everything is worse than it was five years ago, said Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Iraq is worse, the Palestinian issue is worse, Iran is worse. Many Arabs blame on the Bush administration, citing the war in Iraq especially, but also unqualified support for Israel in the battle against Hezbollah in Lebanon and inattention to the Palestinians.
Democracy efforts have stalled. Non-democratic but pro-US governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan now largely shrug off the administration s campaign for strong steps toward democracy.
The victory by the Islamic resistance movement Hamas in Palestinian elections last January gave a boost to arguments that stability was more important than democracy.And the biggest democratic experiment of all – Iraq – has degenerated into a vicious sectarian war.
If the US is going to help itself, its policy needs to change in the Middle East the Saudi ambassador to the US, Turki al-Faisal, said Monday in Washington. He urged the US to start by pressing Israel to relinquish all occupied Arab land – and Jerusalem – to the Palestinians.
Many Arab officials question, however, whether the Democrats have better answers to the region s problems.
They consider the Democrats traditionally more supportive of Israel than the Republican Party is. Even as they eye the possible political upheaval in the United States, Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are maintaining close ties to the Bush administration.
At the level of those who follow politics closely, there is fear that if the Democrats win, there will be an imbalance in foreign policy, said Kuwaiti analyst Ayed Al-Mannah. Support for moderate forces and governments … will be weakened.
Still, the belief is that heavy Republican losses in the House of Representatives and Senate will force the administration into a major re-evaluation of policy, especially over Iraq. To that end, Arab governments are looking to the forthcoming recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group as a catalyst.
After the elections, the group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, plans to announce recommendations on Iraq.
It s unclear what the group will recommend, but Baker has publicly questioned the administration s policy of not talking to Iran or Syria. Both countries have influence with Iraqi armed groups.
Contacts with Syria would have to be done carefully to avoid undercutting the fragile government in neighboring Lebanon, which fears Syrian influence, or Saudi Arabia, with whom Damascus relations are frosty.
Saudi Arabia has no problem with contact if it s going to lead somewhere an Arab diplomat familiar with the kingdom said. But indications at the moment are that contacts with Damascus would not produce results, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the kingdom.
It remains unclear if the Bush administration would be willing to engage in talks on a range of issues with Iran and Syria. And contacts alone are unlikely to produce quick results. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, which turned down US offers for talks on Iraq this year.
The Iranians would doubtless seek US acceptance of their nuclear program, which they say is for peaceful purposes something the United States is highly unlikely to do because it suspects Iran wants an atomic bomb.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alluded to this in a speech Monday, telling the Americans you need someone to save you from the sadness of the Iraqi quagmire and then you threaten us with sanctions.
Syria would likely press for an end to the investigation into the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister and a tacit US acceptance of Syrian influence in Lebanon – a move that could undermine pro-democracy forces in Lebanon.
Syria and Iran also hold the key to the Palestinian issue – more so even than in the past. Both countries are believed to be blocking efforts to replace the Hamas-led government in Gaza with technocrats – a step many feel is necessary before any peace moves could happen.
Traditionally, the Americans have worked with their moderate Arab allies, Egypt and Jordan, to influence the Palestinians. But Jordan never had influence with Hamas and some fear Egypt s influence with the militant group is now low – creating the push to talk directly with Syria and Iran.
No quick or easy fixes exist to solve the problems of this critical region, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in The Financial Times.
The Middle East will remain a troubled and troubling part of the world for decades to come.