Awaiting Next U.S. President: A Splintered Middle East in ‘Free Fall’

After a presidential campaign dominated by reality-show-style insults and put-downs, the winner of next month’s American election will wake up the following morning to find a far more daunting reality waiting: a Middle East awash in conflict and disarray, desperate for American leadership.

The 45th president will inherit problems associated with the region that are vastly more challenging than any in a generation as the old order has given way to a kaleidoscopic mix of alliances, rivalries and overlapping crises. In the past, presidents have viewed the region through the prism of the Cold War, terrorism or Israel, but those paradigms have shifted dramatically.

Today there is no single overarching issue but multiple ones. Syria, Iraq and Yemen are caught up in war. Turkey and Jordan are inundated by refugees. Russia has reasserted itself as a major player in the region. Libya is searching for stability after the fall of its longtime dictator. The Kurds are on the march. Egypt is fighting off a terrorist threat at home. And Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a profound struggle for the future of the region.

“In truth, the Middle Eastern order is so fragmented right now that grand visions are utterly unrealistic, if they ever were,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Bahrain. “Circumstances, not mere preferences, dictate policy making, and circumstances are dire.”

Here in the region, the United States is seen as disengaging under President Obama, who beyond fighting the Islamic State has been reluctant to be drawn into the swirling forces shaping the Middle East. Mr. Obama’s “politics-free security approaches,” as Mr. Hokayem termed them, have left some hoping for a stronger hand from Washington come January.

Like others in the region, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has spent a lot of time lately expressing concern to visiting Americans about the consequences of an American retreat from the region.

And like others, Mr. Netanyahu has been hedging his bets. He has visited Moscow several times in the past year — not because he prefers Russia to America, his advisers said, but because the Kremlin is filling a vacuum left by Washington.

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