A second term Obama administration and the Mideast

The changes in the region will force Obama to make some difficult decisions on how to act regarding Egypt, Syria, Palestinians, and Iran.

US President Barack Obama 370 (R) (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
US President Barack Obama 370 (R)
(photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
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, and Iran.
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 direction.
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.
The Syrian 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.
Concerning the 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 Iran.
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.