President Obama may have secured another term, but the outlook for US foreign policy in the Middle East looks far less certain
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.
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