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Presidents come and go, but goals remain

It's unrealistic to think that Obama could make radical foreign policy changes

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Almost a year into his presidency, Barack Obama has so far introduced few changes to US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. His interest in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be diminishing, the new strategy in Afghanistan is nothing but a replica of the previous administration's strategy in Iraq and the pull out of US troops from Iraq does not seem to be imminent. Those who expected a significant shift in US foreign policy under Obama must be disappointed.

For commentators and analysts who are familiar with US foreign policy, however, it was clear from the very beginning that the political system would make it difficult for Obama to keep his promise of bringing change.

Having said that, one needs to understand that American foreign policy involves multiple perspectives. Over the years, flawed perceptions have developed among those with special interests. These perceptions assume that American policy undergoes fundamental change every time a new president enters the White House and that it is affected by rivalries based on partisan politics. These assumptions are widely held, but radically oversimplify the process of policy making in the US.

Three levels

When we think of American policy on the Middle East, which concerns us most, we need to bear in mind that this policy is not an isolated area of interest or a routine bureaucratic matter. Rather, it involves three levels of decision-making that are constantly shifting: the global, the regional and the actual area in conflict. Any administration will always have global aims, such as containing or defeating rivals, promoting American values, free trade and so on. Sometimes, these aims seem to relate directly to the Middle East, as in Carter's pursuit of oil supplies. At other times the Middle East is peripheral to the administration's main concern, as it was to Truman's containment policy or Kennedy's multiple options doctrine. There will also be regional aims, such as the promotion of pro-American regimes or the attempt to build Israel as a regional hegemon. Finally, there may be special interest in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, as in Clinton's aspiration to occupy a place in history by resolving the world's key conflict.

In any administration, the global perspective will be paramount, however. Regional objectives or localised goals, no matter how important they are, cannot be allowed to restrict or contradict global objectives. To understand an administration, it is important to identify its global objectives, define the degree and intensity of consensus, and analyse how the Middle East fits in. Every president begins with foreign policy priorities and objectives, however obscure and unarticulated. Most, if not all of the president's key advisers share these primary objectives; they pay attention to the Middle East to the extent that it seems critical to their global aims.

After September 11, 2001, the Middle East became the focus of US global strategy. "Anti-terrorism" was similarly transformed into a state ideology; replacing the anti-communist consensus of the Cold War. In the post-September 11 era, Republicans and Democrats alike share a determination to win the "war on terror", as they once shared the objective of defeating communism.

Auxiliary factors

One must also recognise that there are auxiliary factors that determine the content of American policy, such as: the basic assumptions of the president, the individuals on whom he relies for advice, and the resulting decision-making system that converts ideas into policies.

If we examine the assumptions held by Obama and his close advisers in the light of these factors, we find that most of them, if not all, are not genuinely different from those held by the previous administration. The "globalistic" orientation unleashed by former president George W. Bush, for example, is a notion that is widely shared by the Democratic administration.

Obama might be less ideological and more pragmatic than Bush; yet his policy does not seem to be fundamentally different. Any American president — be he Republican or Democrat — will seek to expand US power and influence and will almost always aspire to building a global hegemony. Indeed, US presidents are different in their characters, personalities, approaches and styles, but not in the strategic objectives they seek to achieve.


Dr Marwan Kabalan is lecturer in Media and International Relations at the Faculty of Political Sciences and Media in Damascus University.