NEW YORK // Barack Obama set out to fundamentally change America’s role in the Middle East in 2013.
He opted to pursue diplomacy and negotiated solutions to the intractable conflicts that have kept the United States as the regional keystone as a provider of security and counterweight to Iran.
Traditional allies were often infuriated as Mr Obama charted a new course with what they saw as muddled decisions and confusing zigs and zags in US policy. Gone were the easily comprehensible days of the Cold War or America’s unchallenged dominance that followed, when it tried to spread its values and democracy through foreign policy.
After 12 years of draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and little public appetite for overseas engagements in the face of festering economic woes and deep budget cuts, not to mention greater energy independence, in 2013 Mr Obama sought to narrow the US role abroad and push adversaries and allies to find common interests, if not reconciliation.
Mr Obama bet that by trying to contain the war in Syria, renewing a push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and, first and foremost, negotiating an accord with Iran over its nuclear programme, the US could ask its allies to shoulder an increasing share of the burden in the Middle East, freeing it to pursue its own interests in rising Asia.
With the clocks on these three diplomatic initiatives running in parallel and set to expire in 2014, the coming year will largely determine Mr Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and whether the tactics of multilateralism, risk aversion and engagement that drive his decision making will bring about a precipitous American decline or a new US-led global order that it nonetheless does not dominate.
But among the long-time US allies in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf states, Israel and Egypt – the US administration has not been able to quell deep anxiety that Mr Obama is pursuing a deal with Iran and extrication from the region at the cost of leaving them vulnerable to their adversary, who would be freer to pursue its policies in the Arab world, especially in Syria.
The long path to an end to violence in Syria likely begins with the negotiations between Iran and the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany on a deal to ensure Tehran does not use its nuclear enrichment programme to make bombs, with crippling UN and US economic sanctions to be lifted in exchange.
During the six-month negotiating period agreed to by both sides, which will likely begin next month, the US administration faces a very difficult battle in selling a final deal to both its regional allies and a sceptical Congress.
The details of the deal have been left vague, but inevitably it will leave Iran with its ability to enrich uranium, albeit to much lower levels and with invasive inspections. This, however, has been an unacceptable outcome for US allies.
Mr Obama has not nurtured personal relationships with Middle East leaders, as his predecessors have done, and has failed to effectively communicate to regional partners his strategy on Egypt and his last-minute decision not to bomb Syria after it crossed his chemical weapons red line. That decision fuelled the perception of a loss of American leadership and decline.
This perception abides, and if not confronted by the US administration through diplomacy, will make the all-important Iran deal very difficult to achieve.
Reported internal fissures between the White House and the departments of defence and state over Middle East policy, especially in Egypt, have done little to reassure anxious allies.
With Congress unlikely to pass new sanctions on Iran for now, many observers say the US must focus on working with the Gulf states and Israel to find a deal that they can agree to, even grudgingly.
The administration has been at pains to portray the nuclear negotiations as tightly focused on the issue, but most say they will inevitably – explicitly or implicitly – be linked to the top regional issue, Syria.
Iranian willingness to compromise will increase its chances of attending talks in Switzerland between rebels and the Syrian regime, scheduled to begin on January 22. Iran’s involvement and prodding would likely make Bashar Al Assad more pliable, but a Syrian political settlement that is seen as overly generous to Iranian wishes will inflame tensions with allies such as Saudi Arabia, who are central supporters of the Syrian rebels.
Of the three Middle East diplomatic initiatives that Washington has undertaken over the past year, perhaps there is least hope for the oldest and most intractable – the peace process.
Mr Obama himself never showed much enthusiasm for the undertaking that does not deeply affect US interests. He likely also does not wish to push the Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, with whom he has a cold relationship, but who he will need to finalise an Iran nuclear deal.
And if Mr Netanyahu, who opposes allowing Iran any enrichment capability, feels he has no choice but to compromise on this, he will likely let the renewed peace process wither and die on the vine.