The Middle East's low expectations over the US election

Palestinians watch President Obama's speech in Cairo at their house in the Gaza Strip in 2009. Photo: Reuters

If the people of the Middle East got a vote tomorrow, many I suspect would simply respond: "neither of the above.’’

For the incumbent, there is only one person to blame.

More specifically. one word; that single syllable slogan.

Change. There’s been plenty of it, but not what he had in mind.

Perhaps Barack Obama should have been more careful in what he wished for.

Or perhaps it was inevitable that a President who hyped the notion of hope has been seen here as such a disappointment.

Barack Obama's slogan during his presidential campaign in 2008 was "Change".

If that’s not the universal verdict, it is as close as you can get to consensus. The top and bottom of Obama’s first term tells you why.

Cairo, June 2009. A momentous day and an historic message. The president delivered a speech he hailed "a new beginning" in relations with the Muslim world.

President Barack Obama delivers a speech in the Grand Hall of Cairo University in June 2009 Credit: Reuters

Cast forward three years, and it ended at the Democrat convention with an undignified scramble over the contentious recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish state.

More seriously and ominously, there are war clouds over Iran that the White House cannot quite clear.

How distant now his offer of dialogue to replace decades of conflict. That hope died in the bloodshed on Tehran's streets in 2009.

Then came Obama’s failed attempts to breathe life into Israel-Palestine peace process. A short freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, but an immovable deep freeze on talks.

And of course the all consuming heat of the Arab Spring, in which the United States has often been swept along by events, rather than shaping them.

Egyptian protesters march with a huge flag during a rally at Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011. Credit: Reuters

Here's a bitter irony for Obama. One recent poll shows the biggest fall in support for his presidency in the Middle East is in Egypt, down thirteen percent in three years.

And that in a country where young idealists took inspiration for their revolution from that Cairo speech. The United States, it seems, cannot win.

Indeed, Obama’s critics say that in four years, his White House has alienated allies (Israel), abandoned friends (Egypt’s Mubarak) and encouraged enemies (Iran).

In this unsparing analysis, Syria’s unending civil war and America’s perceived paralysis outweighs any credit won in Libya and Tunisia and the death of Osama Bin Laden.

It’s a harsh judgment. But some mud is sticking. And nowhere more so than Israel, where research commissioned by Tel Aviv University found Israelis favouring Mitt Romney by a margin of two-to-one.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama during their final presidential debate Credit: Reuters

This has been a season dominated by opinion poll numbers. So here's another telling figure: 34.

That was the number of times Israel was mentioned in the final presidential debate.

Iran won a more frequent name check but that was often in association with Israel.

All-in-all, it added up to a pretty accurate gauge of the United States' foreign policy obsessions, for all that talk of a New Beginning, of pressing the re-set button in the Middle East.

And at the crux of the Israel-United States' relationship, and the foreign policy issue that has dominated the presidential race, is what Washington would do if Israel attacked Tehran's nuclear programme.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Credit: Reuters

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned the Iranian issue into something so significant, an existential threat," says Ronen Bergman, an Israeli commentator and journalist.

"He believes that a President Romney would turn a blind eye – or show a sort of blinking green light – to an Israeli air-strike on Iran."

While Obama and Netanyahu have frosty personal relations, Romney and Netanyahu are friends from three decades back when they worked together at the Boston Consulting Group.

They share a conservative outlook and a multi-billionaire backer in the shape of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Obama, wooing the Jewish vote at home, has vowed he will never allow Iran to obtain atomic weapons, but has emphasised diplomacy and sanctions over military options.

In return, Netanyahu has done everything he can to back Romney, short of actually endorsing his candidacy in public.

While Israel and Iran have taken starring roles in the US campaign, Palestinians haven't merited much more than a walk on part.

In headline terms, if Palestinians, like their Arab brothers, view Obama as a disappointment, then Romney they fear would be a disaster.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney Credit: Reuters

Romney’s summer visit to Jerusalem outraged Arab opinion when he praised Israel's "economic vitality" compared to Israeli-occupied Palestine, and said it had much to do with the "hand of providence."

Bad enough; and then compounded when in secretly taped comments Romney described the Palestinians as "committed to the destruction and elimination" of Israel while indicating he's unlikely to pursue the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian-American analyst and businessman, Sam Bahour, told me:

Romney scares me, seriously scares me.

President Obama may have failed the Middle East in his first term as he picked up the pieces of eight years of damage caused by George W Bush's administration, but every time Governor Romney opens his mouth on Middle East affairs he exposes his extraordinary American ignorance.

But perhaps it's not ignorance but impotence that matters most and worries the United States more.

The rise of Islamist governments in Egypt and beyond, an increasingly strident Israel, and the Syrian bloodbath in which neither candidate is advocating serious intervention; all seem to emphasise American decline.

Four years on, change is still sweeping the Middle East, challenging US policy like never before.

The occupant of the Oval Office remains the most powerful man on earth. But in the Middle East, it doesn’t feel that way.

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