It's finally over and it cost $6bn, the most expensive presidential election campaign in us history. For Americans the polls were about jobs, the economy, taxes, national security, and Israel. For those of us abroad, it was about the global economy, and the impact of Barack Obama's re-election on the country and the region that we live in.
Shortly after he became the first black president in American history in 2008, Obama called leaders in the Middle East on his first day in office as a show of engagement that he was serious about finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He then, of course, made a historic speech in Cairo in which he addressed the Arab world, promising change - just as his campaign did with its ’yes we can’ motto.
And now that Obama is back, America appears to have its work cut out for much as it did when George W Bush left office with the US at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global credit crisis that threatened to unravel the world's economy and a financial system with little credibility. Today, Obama who espouses a sense of moderation in his foreign policy to much of the outside world, will need to address a multitude of challenges — domestic and foreign — especially given that in the past four years popular uprisings have toppled several Arab leaders and continued upheaval threatens to unseat others.
In Syria, an uprising against Bashar Al Assad has turned into a civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people. The uprising, which began peacefully in the spring of 2011 as a genuine quest for democratic change and reform has spiralled into a bloody conflict that is now infused with radical Islamists and risks spilling over into neighbouring countries. Unlike Libya, where America played a military role through NATO without putting boots on the ground, the appetite for military intervention in Syria is absent, and after several vetoes by Russia and China there seems to be no will at the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution that would pave the way for measures that would eventually unseat Assad.
“Syria is going to be a test for the administration but Iran is probably where the most attention is going to be focused,” says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “If the US tries to handpick a new coalition of Syrian opposition groups and try to recognize them as a government in exile that's very difficult to do.”
Direct US military intervention in Syria is unlikely, though it could take place as part of a wider international coalition, Khouri says.
Tied to Syria is Iran, its principal ally in the region. Concern — both real and perceived — over Iran’s regional aspirations and uranium enrichment programme, along with tight sweeping sanctions against Tehran, have raised tensions in the region and increased the rhetoric between Tehran and Israel. Talk of a pre-emptive strike by Israel on nuclear sites in Iran and a subsequent Iranian retaliation has raised the spectre of an all-out war that could drag in other countries in the region.
Obama’s re-election is “certainly going to make a difference for Iran,” says former CIA officer Robert Baer. “I see it as an opening for big negotiations or a backchannel going on between Washington and Iran.”
In the run up to the 2008 elections, Obama said he would be willing to meet with the Iranian leadership without preconditions. Shortly after being elected four years ago, Obama received a congratulatory letter from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first from an Iranian president to a newly elected American leader since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Ties between the two countries were severed that year after American diplomats in Tehran were held hostage for 444 days.
In his first term in office, “Obama was kind of boxed in to accepting from the US Congress this plan for the most severe sanctions on Iran, the most severe sanctions on any country in history,” says University of Michigan professor and historian Juan Cole. “That policy has worked for Obama because he can use it to reassure the Israel lobby in the US and the Israeli public that he’s doing something about Iran, but it’s a very dangerous policy because there are two things that lead to war in history; ultimatums and blockades. And so it’s not impossible that this American attempt to prevent Iranian petroleum from being sold could result in such severe tensions and that hostilities could break out even without necessarily the two sides wanting that to happen.”
For America, diffusing the West’s stand-off — particularly that of Israel with Iran — is paramount. Iran is allied with Assad’s regime in Syria and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, a proxy power in the strategic balance of power of the region. A solution could have implications in a much wider context.
“If the Iran issue can be resolved, it has enormous implications for Hezbollah, Syria, for Lebanon, the Gulf, it ricochets all across the region and I think Obama understands that,” Khouri says.
Since the Arab Spring, the seminal issue that preoccupied policy makers when it came to the Middle East is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli question. Solving it, though, remains a salient and integral part to having peace in the region.
The protests that swept the Arab world in the past two years have done little in the form of providing impetus for a solution. Israel is more intransigent, building more settlements on illegally occupied Palestinian land and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tried to sway American Jews to vote in the election in favour of Mitt Romney may be re-elected in the upcoming Israeli polls in January. That hardly bodes well for policy changes in the future. Obama was unable to put pressure on Israel and pursued an ad hoc approach to dealing with the conflict. Whether he can put the peace process back on track or has the inclination to invest more political capital into the protracted conflict remains to be seen.
Obama came into office in 2009 very much hoping to move to a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians and he did make some important efforts in that direction. “But ultimately that effort foundered because the Israeli government of Netanyahu was not interested in a solution,” says Cole.
Obama is unlikely to make another push on the Arab-Israeli peace front right away.
“The Arab world altogether doesn’t have the Palestinian issue at the top of its agenda today so there is no pressure from the Arab world on the Palestinian issue,” says Jamal Khashoggi, an influential Saudi columnist and former advisor to Prince Turki Al Faisal.
“Obama is not under the pressure that Bill Clinton was unless something happens that brings the Palestinian issue back on the table. It’s off the radar. The transformation in the Arab world is more pending and people in the Arab world are more concerned with Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.”
“It doesn’t seem to be a high priority for him or the country, they can live with the situation like it is now as it seems,” Khouri says. “He tried it once and he got burned. Unless there is a change in Israel. If there is a change, he might make another attempt to push for peacemaking. The big thing is how to respond to the Arab uprisings. There is still a bit of confusion and hesitation in the US on that both in the government and public opinion.”
The Jasmine Revolution, which is what has come to describe the wave of protests that engulfed Tunisia after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, sparking an uprising that ended the 23-year rule of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and reverberated throughout the Arab world, took the Obama administration by complete surprise.
As protests swept through the country with violent clashes taking place in January 2011, the US administration’s first reaction to events on the ground could be described as noncommittal. “We are not taking sides, but we are saying we hope that there can be a peaceful resolution,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “And I hope that the Tunisian government can bring that about.”
After Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Obama condemned the crackdown on civilians who were protesting peacefully against the Ben Ali regime, saying he deplored “the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia,” adding: “I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people”. He also said the US “stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard”. He called on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections that reflect the aspirations of the Tunisian people.
The Obama administration was equally cautious in Egypt, when hundreds of thousands of people, which then swelled to millions, poured into the streets of Cairo and Tahrir Square in January 2011 calling on Mubarak to stand down.
“Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” Clinton said at a press conference at the time.
Then on January 30, five days after the protests swept the most populous country in the Middle East and North Africa, Clinton said there was a need for an “orderly transition”. On February 1, after Mubarak said he would not stand for another term when his current one finished, Obama spoke to the Egyptian leader by phone and told him that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and the change must begin now”. The president didn’t, however, ask Mubarak to step down immediately, which was a key demand by protestors and opposition figures in Egypt.
On February 10, a day before Mubarak resigned, Obama said the Egyptian people had been told there was a transition of authority, but that it was not clear if the transition was immediate, meaningful or sufficient. He pressed the government and said it was responsible “to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world,” and that it “put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy,” and to “spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step by step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek”.
“Our support for democracy ultimately put us on the side of the people,” Obama said in his speech at the UN General Assembly this September. To that end Obama does need to regain some lost credibility in the Arab world.
“A lot of the people that made these revolutions are kind of puzzled as to why they’re all out there by themselves and why the US seems not that interested in them,” says Professor Cole. “Obama needs to be more upfront about what he sees as the future of the Arab world and how the US can help achieve the aspirations that have been expressed by the people of the region.”
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