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The time difference being what it is, Americans will still be voting when this column appears online.

If you are a relatively early riser and are reading this in an actual, printed newspaper on this morning then the votes in more than a few places are still being counted (in Alaska and Hawaii the polls may not even have closed).

So we do not know the results yet, but that does not mean we can't look to the future with some degree of certainty.

Regardless of who won yesterday's midterm elections, the next two years are likely to be a rocky time for America. What that will mean for foreign policy in general is difficult to predict. Concerning the Middle East, however, it is probably safe to assume that an embattled president facing a tough re-election campaign in 2012 will make no bold moves unless he is assured in advance that they will succeed.

First, the conventional wisdom:

Going into Election Day, virtually every pundit in America is predicting that the Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives. To do this they need to pick up 39 or more seats. In the final few days before the election conventional wisdom (supported by a lot of very sophisticated polling data) put the expected GOP gain at roughly 50. That means that even if the pollsters are well wide of the mark Republican control of the House seems more likely than not.

Most analysts expect the Senate to remain in Democratic hands, albeit with a very thin majority. In the dysfunctional world of the American senate, where a super-majority of 60 per cent is required to accomplish almost anything, such narrow control — regardless of who is nominally in charge — pretty much guarantees a continuation of the partisan gridlock of the past two years.

It may seem perverse, but this appears to be what a lot of Americans want. Divided government has a long history in the United States. It is an idea that appeals to many voters: a Congress dominated by one party serves as a check on the ambitions of a president from the other. Voters often hope the resulting stalemate will force the two sides to work together.

Politicians tend to see such situations differently. Many Republicans, sensing victory this week, have already indicated that finding a middle ground where they and Barack Obama can cooperate is not part of their agenda. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to Election Day the Republicans in both houses of Congress went out of their way to pledge redoubled obstruction.

No compromise

Congressman John Boehner, who will become Speaker of the House if the GOP takes charge, has pledged "no compromise" with the White House. Senator Mitch McConnell recently told an interviewer that regardless of whether he remains in the minority or becomes majority leader, over the next two years "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president".

Faced with such a situation there was a time when the natural response of an American president would be to focus on foreign policy — an area in which administrations often have more latitude for action independent of Congress. This, however, is far easier for a second-term president who no longer has to worry about re-election.

In any event, America's ongoing economic distress means that Obama will not have the luxury of ignoring squabbling politicians at home while he moves as a statesman on the global stage.

Far more likely is a 24-month period in which Obama, in public at least, largely disengages from the rest of the world so that he can be seen to pay pretty much exclusive attention to economic recovery.

That will not necessarily mean that the Middle East is ignored: the region can still expect to receive a lot of attention from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But presidential engagement — something that is always at a premium — will be even harder than usual to come by.

And what does this week's election portend for Obama himself? With the votes still being counted it is, of course, too early to say anything definitive. Count on this, however: today or tomorrow, once the results are in, both Obama and the Republican leadership will say appropriately high-minded things about wanting to find common ground and work with each other. But long before the new Congress convenes in January that pretence of bipartisanship will fall away (personally, I give it about a week).

Each side will blame the other for this, and everyone's position will rapidly harden. We may lament this, but the logic is inevitable. The next election is only two years off and this time the presidency is on the line.

In other words, welcome to the 2012 presidential campaign. It began in earnest while you were reading this column.

Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who has covered the Middle East for ABC News, CNN and Fox since the 1980s. He has also taught Middle East Studies and Islamic History at Emerson College and the University of Vermont.