The changes in the region will force the Obama administration to make some
difficult decisions on how to act regarding Egypt, Syria, the Palestinians, and
Iran. The administration will need to be careful in how it deals with the
Egyptian government and how it handles its support for the Syrian opposition.
Most importantly, alarmist scenarios that a second term Obama administration
will abandon Israel are unwarranted.
The new Obama administration is
facing some tough choices on how to approach its Middle East foreign policy in
the coming four years.
Many are quick to argue that the US will be less
focused on the Middle East during the next term. They say that by 2020 the US,
thanks to the shale oil revolution, will be the world’s largest oil producer.
They add that the US is more concerned with “pivoting” from the Middle East and
developing ties in Asia.
This does not appear to be the case, however.
The US will remain invested in the Middle East. Even if it becomes a net oil
exporter, the US will view the free flow of oil from the Middle East as integral
to its role as a superpower, and will ensure that there are no disruptions to
the world economy that is essential for the US economy as well. The
administration will remain committed to Israel, its strongest ally in the
region. What is up for debate is how the US will approach the sweeping changes
and emerging threats in the region, specifically Egypt, Syria, the Palestinians,
Egypt is a complicated issue for the Obama
administration, mainly because of the $1.2 billion in annual military aid and
$450 million in economic assistance that the US provides for Cairo (the latter
is a $200m. increase from last year).
Congress is worried about the
military aid being sent to Egypt, due to a lack of certainty about its
Congress is currently holding up the economic assistance. The
recent clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi over
his seizing of additional powers have the US worried even further about the
reality of Egypt’s democratic aspirations.
Going forward, Congress may be
reluctant to transfer military aid to Egypt. It will want a sense of the role of
the Egyptian military going forward, given its close ties with the US in the
past. It would not be surprising that Congress will seek to earmark some
military funds for counter-terrorism efforts in Sinai.
conflict threatens to destabilize the region and could plunge the Middle East
into a Sunni-Shiite war. It is not likely, however, that President Obama will
send troops to intervene in Syria.
Reports about the atrocities committed
by the regime against its own people is bound to guarantee that the Obama
administration enhance its support for the Syrian opposition. What he should do
is demand a tighter coordination among the leaders of the Syrian opposition who
supply weaponry, as well as insist on a clear national, and not just local,
hierarchy within the Free Syrian Army.
Palestinians, the US policy is likely to be “collision no, interest yes.” The
Israeli left mistakenly believes that a second term US president is limitless in
its actions, since he cannot be re-elected.
History shows that a second
term president is able to enhance his political capital upon his election, but
such capital remains defined and is easily depleted, as was the case during the
second term of the George W. Bush administration.
Obama will choose
carefully how he acts. He will not try to take “revenge” on Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu and he understands that they will need to work together on
Iran. The US administration is concerned that the Palestinian Authority (PA)
will collapse and trigger more instability in Jordan. It believes Israel has a
deep interest that the PA does not collapse, as this will lead to greater
radicalization. It seems that Prime Minister Netanyahu shares this view.
Washington also perceives the “Arab Spring” differently than Israel. While
Israel is trying to ride out the storm, the US feels that Israel needs to
acknowledge the recent changes and deal with them more head-on. Specifically,
the US is concerned that the continued impasse between the Israelis and
Palestinians will feed Arab regional radicalization, even if Arabs seek to
further their own national interests.
The big issue, of course, is
The economic sanctions are currently having an impact, but they are
not working to stop the nuclear program. By the end of 2013 the US will no
longer be able to say that Iran doesn’t have enough material for the bomb. The
US must demand clarity from the Iranians over what they plan to do with their
nuclear material. In the first few months of his administration, Obama should
seek clarity on this issue and make a last-ditch attempt at diplomacy by putting
forward an offer that will be clear to the American people and its allies that
the US is making a good faith offer, but will not countenance an Iranian nuclear
break-out under any circumstances. Obama will ask Israel not to attack until
this clarity is achieved, so that the US can at least claim to have tried all
avenues. Therefore, if there is a deterioration, Tehran will be to blame. Iran
will most likely reject these overtures, but at least the world will know where
all of the actors stand. Obama knows that if Iran gets the bomb it will destroy
American credibility in the Middle East, given that so many American
administrations have drawn the idea of Iran with a bomb as a red line. This is
the last thing he wants.
The writer is the Ziegler distinguished fellow
and director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace
Process. This Paper was published as a Perspectives Paper by the Begin-Sadat
Center for Strategic Studies and is based upon a presentation given at a
conference on November 21, 2012.