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Protesters in Cairo rally on Dec. 18 in support of Iraqi reporter Muntadhar al-Zeidi (AFP/Getty Images)

Hopes Run High In Middle East For Obama

Dec 23, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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The Middle East will likely be a major foreign policy priority for the administration of Barack Obama. His election has generated high expectations — some say too high — that he can restore the image of the United States in the Arab world and that changes in Mideast policy are imminent.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the low esteem in which President George W. Bush is held in the Middle East than the joyous embrace of Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at the president on his farewell visit to Baghdad.

The Jordanian parliament observed a moment of silence in honor of the insult. In Egypt, one man offered his daughter in marriage to Zeidi, while an Egyptian musician wrote lyrics lionizing the shoe-thrower. Shaaban Abdel Rahim previously released a song that expresses the hope that "Obama will be better than Bush."

In such an atmosphere, President-elect Obama already has restored a certain amount of goodwill toward the United States — simply by not being Bush.

"From the viewpoint of the region, it was like a miracle," says Faleh Jabar, head of the Iraq Studies Institute. "[Obama's] father is a Kenyan, a Muslim; he is not the beloved of the big corporations and big corporate money, so all this has created a kind of magic."

"Now," Jabar adds, "I fear this magic."

Marrying Publicity With Progress

That fear is due to the exceedingly high hopes now facing the next administration. Toby Dodge, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, calls it "Hope and Awe," and says Obama will enjoy an international honeymoon even if he doesn't introduce dramatic changes in foreign policy.

Dodge recalls that while Bill Clinton's Middle East policies were, in his view, "depressingly unoriginal," Clinton "dressed them up in a marvelous, soft-power public relations coup that somewhat detracted from the lack of movement."

Obama can learn from Clinton's deft use of publicity, Dodge says, "but what he desperately needs to do is marry that with progress on the big, solvable issues while deploying reassuring noises on Iran on the Arab side of the Gulf."

Tackling Iran, The Arab-Israeli Conflict

Dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions through engagement and diplomacy — rather than the threat of military action — tops the agenda for many Arab and Middle East analysts. If the Obama administration is willing to talk with the Iranians, many in the region will breathe a sigh of relief.

For some, the key is severing the political alliance between Iran and Syria. Arab officials say that on paper, that shouldn't be hard, given Syria's historic distaste for extreme Islamist ideology.

But in practice, that most likely means progress must be made on the other leading agenda item for the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mideast analysts say Damascus might break with Iran if it can get the Golan Heights back from Israel and end its isolation from the West. However, making that happen at a time of political instability in the region — and economic turmoil worldwide — is a tall order.

Promoting Democracy In The Region

One Bush administration policy that many in the region hope will be modified — not jettisoned — is the push for democracy. Mona Makram Ebeid, a former Egyptian legislator, says President Bush's penchant for, in her words, "imposing democracy" backfired, leading Arab regimes to become even more authoritarian.

"So people here wonder about the direct connection between autocratic regimes and the support of the U.S. to them. Justification for that was that they need stability in the region," Ebeid says. "The imposition of democracy has led to a regression in democratic freedoms, and causing most democrats, like myself, to shun any involvement with the U.S."

Promoting democracy in the Middle East may not be at the top of Obama's agenda, but neither will he be able to ignore it, analysts say, with elections coming up in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Egypt in the next three years.

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Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR follows the transition to a new administration through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that outline the issues and challenges facing the new president. From a broken military to a troubled economy — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

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