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Obama's pivot to Asia? Middle East will still demand attention in 2013.

The popular unrest of the last two years has left the Middle East volatile as 2013 kicks off.

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The state of that country's economy has deteriorated sharply thanks to the political turmoil of the past two years, with clashes in Cairo between supporters of Morsi and his opponents in November being the latest reminder that the authoritarian stability of the Mubarak years has been replaced by something fluid and hard to predict.

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Many of the Egyptian liberals and secularists who listened to Obama's Cairo speech so appreciatively now grumble that he's backing the Brothers as they seek to cement their power and influence over the country. In the year ahead, and beyond, Obama will have to weigh criticism of Egyptian suppression of civil liberties on the one hand against a desire for Egyptian cooperation in keeping Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, contained in Gaza.

There are still other shoes to drop in the region. Libya is struggling to create a new order after decades of one-man rule by Muammar Qaddafi, with weapons smuggling rife along its desert borders and sharp clashes there still to be worked out over the role of Islam in the country's political life. In Bahrain, a close US ally and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, a Sunni monarchy is contending with the simmering political discontent of the country's Shiite majority, which is challenging Obama's earlier assertion of a personal commitment to advocating "governments that reflect the will of the people."

East of the Middle East

The one constant from four years ago is hardly reassuring: the slow, steady progress of Iran's nuclear program. Obama has spearheaded an effort among Western governments to financially isolate Iran, with restrictions on its oil sales and the financial transactions of its central bank, which have taken a heavy toll on Iran's economy but have done little to lessen the commitment of Ayatollah Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, to what he insists is a peaceful nuclear program.

For now, Iran continues to insist on its right to nuclear enrichment, which the US argues is producing material that could be eventually used in a nuclear bomb.

The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is as fraught as ever. Yes, Osama bin Laden was killed in a daring raid in Pakistan by US troops in 2011. But, notwithstanding billions of dollars in annual US aid, that country continues to provide a home to militants, and Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who helped the US track Mr. bin Laden to his compound in Abbottabad, remains in a Pakistani jail.

In Afghanistan, the Army is completely reliant on US financing and technical support to operate, and the Taliban appear no weaker than they did when Obama took office.

As the Obama administration looks ahead to 2013 and its new challenges, it is looking over a Middle East landscape transformed from four years ago. The old ways of doing business in the region aren't going to work anymore. How Obama must miss them.


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