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HOLMES: America’s waning influence in the Middle East

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama thought that if he reached out to the Muslim world, American influence in the Middle East would rise.

It didn't work out that way.

Witness the fight the administration is waging at the United Nations to prevent the Palestinians from gaining its nod to "statehood" and borders without Israel's agreement.

The Palestinians likely were emboldened when the administration distanced itself from Israel over its settlements. Despite Israel's agreement to an unprecedented 10-month halt on building in the West Bank, the Palestinians refused to make any concessions, expecting the U.S. to force Israel to cough up more. When Israel balked, the Palestinian Authority turned its back on the Oslo peace agreement and went to the U.N. instead.

Israel and the Palestinians both distrust the administration, which faces anti-American demonstrations if it carries through with its promise to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood.

Next case, Egypt. The administration, like the rest of the world, was caught off guard by the uprising and quickly abandoned President Hosni Mubarak. True, Washington could do little to prop him up. But its reaction broadcast the message across the Middle East that the administration was quick to abandon America's friends and much slower to penalize enemies such as Syrian dictatorBashar Assad.

Some may think we are at least "on the right side of history" in Egypt. But at this point, no one knows where that "history" is heading, particularly with the Muslim Brotherhood's gaining legitimacy. We do know that Egypt's commitment to its peace treaty with Israel is much weaker, the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood is whipping up fervor against Israel and American influence with the government is much diminished. Let's put the historical predictions on hold.

Then there is Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's pro-Islamist government has purged its pro-American military and kicked out the Israeli ambassador, and is moving away from NATO and closer to Iran and Russia. Yes, Turkey recently approved a missile defense radar site for the U.S., but this hardly changes Turkey's steady drift away from America's orbit.

As for Iran, the administration's naive effort to establish relations with its implacably hostile regime earned only the ayatollahs' contempt and the disappointment of the people who resent regime brutality. Mr. Obama's engagement neither halted Iran's accelerating nuclear weapons program nor its support for Islamists killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor did it enlist the promised support of others. Russia and China, despite his "resets," remain persistent drags on stricter Security Council sanctions on Iran.

Reaching out to Tehran did, however, send shock waves through the Sunni Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf kingdoms that called for forcefully containing Iran, not diplomatically courting it. The administration's infamously muted criticism of Tehran's crackdown on protests prompted pro-democracy demonstrators to chant, "Obama, are you with us or are you with them?" He has at best confused the "right side of history" message on U.S. policy toward the Arab Spring, and at worst encouraged the regime to crack down even harder.

Even in Libya, the story is far from over. We should reserve our victory laps until we see what its new leaders are really like. Also, Col. Moammar Gadhafi is still at large. Even assuming it turns out well, it's hard to see how Mr. Obama's on-again, off-again approach signals strong American leadership. The Europeans dragged him into Libya and got U.S. military, logistical and diplomatic support for their campaign. You may like the outcome, but Europeans are touting it as a great victory for their leadership in the world, not America's.

This is what happens when American leadership is defined as chairing the board of international consensus. In the end, it means following the crowd, not leading.

Yes, it's hard to lead, and other countries don't always follow. But the "leadership from behind" approach of a community organizer neither impresses nor influences the "international community" or the Middle East.

Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.

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