What Should the Middle East Expect from Obama’s Second Term?

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Ayman Oghanna / Corbis

A barber watches the results of the U.S. presidential election in Istanbul, Nov. 7, 2012

“This is my last election,” President Barack Obama told then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in comments picked up by a mike in Seoul last March. “After my election, I have more flexibility.”

Obama was referring to Moscow‘s ire at the planned deployment of U.S. missile interceptors (ostensibly defending against Iran) on Russia’s doorstep. Were he to reach an accommodation with the Russians, Obama would enhance prospects for winning Moscow’s cooperation on a number of Administration foreign policy priorities, ranging from arms control and addressing the Iranian nuclear standoff to ending Syria’s increasingly dangerous civil war.

Some even suggest that the flexibility Obama has gained by winning his last election might tempt President Obama to seek to build his legacy in foreign policy — particularly if renewed partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill stymies substantial domestic achievement. But Obama is President of an America whose global leverage and influence have declined sharply since the end of the Cold War, a decline accelerated by the deep crisis facing the American economy and by the failure of military force to impose the U.S.’s will in two major wars over the past decade. As a result, Obama’s foreign policy has been less about any grand strategy than about managing crises in the Middle East and disentangling the U.S. from the expeditionary wars of the Bush era.

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Obama’s initial ambition to jump-start the faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace process floundered and with it his efforts to rebuild relations with the Muslim world. His Administration’s attempted “reset” with Russia too was essentially stillborn, while its “pivot to Asia” has been more a feature of rhetoric than a measurable strategic shift. Rather than set the agenda, Obama has largely found himself forced to react to crises in the Middle East and the Afghanistan-Pakistan sphere, managing the challenges of extricating U.S. troops from the Hindu Kush and relying on drone strikes to kill off the U.S.’s enemies there and also in Yemen; averting the dangers posed by the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program by building sanctions pressure on Tehran; and formulating a response to an Arab rebellion that swept aside long-standing U.S. allies and empowered Islamists in their wake. His Administration developed a form of limited military engagement that relied on others to undertake the heavy lifting — known by the ghastly term leading from behind — to help bring down Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, although the killing of four U.S. diplomatic personnel in Benghazi on Sept. 11 highlights the fragility of the resulting order. More recently, the Obama White House has struggled to find similarly low-cost policy levers that could break Syria’s bloody stalemate by ousting President Bashar Assad.

A foreign policy legacy may not seem the obvious goal for Obama to pursue given today’s limits on American power. And he’s clearly mindful of the reality that any restoration of U.S. global fortunes depends first and foremost on repairing the domestic economy.

“Our economy is recovering,” he told cheering supporters at his victory speech in Chicago. “A decade of war is ending … You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We’ve got more work to do.”

Obama has made plain his determination to avoid new military entanglements abroad and focus instead on rebuilding America — the immense partisan obstacles in his path notwithstanding. Simply avoiding a train wreck in the Middle East will necessitate direct negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, which were reportedly being mooted in the weeks prior to the election. Obama clearly has no appetite for launching a potentially open-ended war of choice against Iran, for which there is precious little support even among Washington’s closest allies — Israel exempted. And the postelection flexibility he signaled to Medvedev may possibly come into play in the search for a compromise with Iran that would halt the slide toward an unintended confrontation.

MORE: Five Middle East Headaches Looming for the U.S.

There have been some indications that Iran’s leaders may be open to a deal under which they accept caps on the levels and extent of their enrichment of uranium, and more intrusive inspections of their nuclear facilities, in exchange for relief from the choke hold of the extensive and tightening sanctions regime overseen by the Obama Administration. Talks over the prospects for a deal can be expected to get under way shortly, although it remains to be seen just how flexible Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei is willing to be — and for that matter, how flexible Obama is able to be: He may have secured re-election, but Israel has long made clear its skepticism toward diplomacy with Iran, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be expected to continue trying to apply political pressure to limit the terms and extent of U.S. engagement with the Iranians.

Obama’s re-election was widely deemed a setback for Netanyahu by Israeli media and politicians, given the Prime Minister’s thinly disguised preference for restoring the Republicans to the White House, but the idea that the Israeli leader would somehow suffer payback from Obama as a result may be overblown. Having observed how Netanyahu’s defiance of Obama over the issue of Israeli settlement construction actually boosted the Likud leader’s domestic political standing in 2009-10, the Administration will be aware that any perception that the U.S. might be trying to get Israeli voters to oust Netanyahu in their January election could spark a backlash that would enhance the incumbent’s standing. So even though Netanyahu looks likely to be challenged by centrist rivals who place greater emphasis on peace with the Palestinians and who criticize the incumbent for using a putative Iran threat as cover for tightening Israel’s grip on occupied territories, the Obama Administration can be expected to take a hands-off approach.

(MORE: Netanyahu’s Lieberman gamble)

Indeed, domestic politics gives Netanyahu little to lose by taking a belligerent posture with the Obama Administration over Iran and the Palestinians. And the Israeli leader knows that whatever his relations with the White House, he can call on the support of a solid bipartisan majority on Capitol Hill.

The hardening of Netanyahu’s own position — as epitomized by the merger of his party with that of his ultranationalist Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman — combined with the dwindling legitimacy of politically enfeebled Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, doesn’t augur well for any prospect of reaching a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Obama may not see much to be gained from devoting energy to the issue. An early indication of his intentions will likely come over the next three weeks, as Abbas plans by the end of this month to bring to the U.N. General Assembly a resolution recognizing Palestine as a nonmember state — a diplomatic upgrade sure to pass in an Assembly where there are no veto powers, but which is vehemently opposed by Israel and the U.S. The optimal outcome for Washington would be to persuade Abbas to stand down through a combination of threats direct (Congress withholding aid) and indirect (prompting Netanyahu to commit to an even harder line in his re-election campaign) as well as promises (of renewed engagement at a later point). Whatever the outcome, though, it’s unlikely to portend a new attempt at reviving the moribund peace process on the basis of the current political array on both sides of the conflict.

Syria too is unlikely to see any dramatic policy shift, with the U.S. eschewing any direct military role and still reluctant to provide heavier weaponry to the rebels. Instead, the U.S. and its allies are likely to continue to press for the until now elusive goal of creating a single, moderate opposition leadership as a precondition for greater Western assistance. In other words, expect business as usual — which is the most likely course of action, at least well into next year, for an Administration forced to play a limited hand of strategic cards to manage a series of crises abroad while the more compelling game is played on the domestic political table in Washington.

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