Barack Obama’s re-election as US president for a second term was received with guarded optimism by the Arab punditry, but not without a sense of scepticism either. In contrast to the euphoria and high hopes that accompanied his historic victory four years ago, the Arab street appeared subdued while analysts warned that Obama’s second term may not differ much from his first, especially where America’s Middle East policies are concerned.
Still, there were those who extolled the president’s record in the past four years. After all, Obama had fulfiled some of his promises, like ending America’s military presence in Iraq. On other issues and in contrast to his predecessor, Obama adopted pragmatism.
He avoided war with Iran, opting for economic sanctions and pressing for a diplomatic solution. His administration supported Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, played a central role in removing Libya’s despotic leader and backed a political deal to unseat Yemen’s authoritarian ruler. Under his watch, the US facilitated the difficult transition of nascent Arab democracies and initiated dialogue with rising Islamist parties.
On Syria, Washington’s position baffled forces opposed to the regime of president Bashar Al Assad. Initially, the US pressed for Al Assad’s removal, but its stand on the opposition, especially the Syrian National Council (SNC), vacillated between lukewarm support and outright rebuke. A new trajectory aimed at restructuring the opposition while making sure that the role of jihadist forces is restricted in post-Al Assad Syria is now being adopted.
It is a confused approach that reflects growing concern over the future of the region as Islamists demonstrate their strength and influence. This new approach was developed in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks on the US consulate and the massive anti-American demonstrations around US embassies in Cairo, Tunis and Sana’a.
As the Syrian conflict rages on, with heavy civilian casualties, there are no signs that Washington and Moscow will reach consensus on a political deal to stop the bloodshed anytime soon. A solution in Syria will require much more than securing arms to the rebels or creating humanitarian corridors along the borders with Turkey and Jordan. It will be achieved through regional and international understanding, one that will require enormous diplomatic efforts at the highest levels; perhaps even a summit meeting between Obama and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment over Obama’s Middle East policy is his failure to salvage peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis and deliver on his promise to create an independent Palestinian state. His efforts in his first term were stymied by a recalcitrant Benjamin Netanyahu. In the view of Arabs, Obama abandoned the Palestinians by failing to halt colony expanision in the West Bank.
But there is room for optimism, now that Obama has been re-elected. We shall soon see how Washington reacts to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ pledge to apply for a UN non-member status for the state of Palestine. This will be an early indicator of a possible change in policy, or willingness to re-engage the parties.
Obama’s room to manoeuvre on Palestine and other issues will be subject to domestic politics. While he does not have to worry about re-election, his Democrats will be eying mid-term elections in two years’ time. If he is ready to deal with the peace process once more, it will be through personal involvement and quiet politics. No showdown with Israel will be allowed to happen despite the frigid relations between Obama and Netanyahu.
In relation to Israel, Obama will have to show that his diplomatic course on Iran is working. It is unlikely that he will allow himself to be dragged into a military adventure with Tehran. But at the same time he must assure his Gulf allies, as well as Israel, that Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
Other areas of concern for Obama will be Afghanistan, where Nato’s war against the Taliban remains largely unsuccessful. He will have to find ways to meet his 2014 withdrawal deadline while making sure that the Taliban do not re-emerge.
US presidents usually dedicate more time and energy to foreign policy in their second terms. Obama is no exception. He has inspired millions four years ago and his legacy will depend on how he fulfils the promises he made along the way.
In some cases, Obama will not have a choice. The Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist forces to power in key Arab countries will reflect on US-Arab relations. The Palestinian issue, which had suffered in the past four years, will re-impose itself on the scene, especially following the Israeli elections in January.
Despite growing doubts about Obama’s ability or willingness to address these issues favourably, Arabs continue to pin hopes on his second term.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.