What comes next?
While Obama may be preferable to McCain, Arabs should remember that the next US president will still champion American interests, writes Amr Abd El-Atty*
How will the next US administration treat the Middle East?
Among Arab commentators, there are two opinions. One is that, regardless of whether the new administration is Republican or Democrat, nothing will change. Others believe that an Obama- led administration may introduce substantial changes. I agree that a McCain-led administration wouldn't change anything of substance in US policy in our region. But, frankly, I can't see Obama taking a radically new approach to the Middle East either.
Little has changed in US policy on the Middle East over the years. Since the late 1940s, the US has defended Israel's security, protected its oil interests and backed its allies in the region. Regardless of whether the Republicans or the Democrats were in power, US policies remained the same. Now US policy in the region is faced with five major challenges:
- The high cost of the war in Iraq. In a way not seen since the end of World War II, the war has placed considerable burdens on American taxpayers. Much of the current economic troubles in the US are related to the cost of the Iraq war. And there is also the human and political cost involved. So the new administration will have a motive to change the way the US is handling Iraq.
- The dwindling US role in the region. Despite the costly presence of US troops in the region, US political influence has receded. Qatar, Egypt and Turkey have taken the lead on several matters of regional urgency: Lebanon, Palestinian talks and Syrian- Israeli negotiations. The Americans may have given their tacit approval of such endeavours, but you don't see them actively involved in diplomacy in the way they used to be.
- The rise of regional powers offers a third challenge to US interests in the region. It has become clear to many, especially after the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, that the US is no longer capable of managing regional conflicts. This encouraged countries -- including Syria and Iran -- to pursue more assertive policies in the region.
- The process of democratisation. As it turned out, democracy offers political clout to the best-organised political movements in the Middle East, including some armed groups that haven't renounced violence. This situation illustrates how contradictory US short- term and long-term policy can be.
- The diminished popularity of the US in the region presents a fifth challenge to US policymakers. A public opinion poll conducted between 27 March and 21 April 2008 shows that 79 per cent of Jordanians harbour negative views of the US. In Egypt, 22 per cent said they disliked the US and 39 per cent said they saw it as an enemy. In Turkey, 70 per cent said that they viewed the US as an enemy, whereas only 12 per cent said they like the US -- the lowest percentage in the whole region.
What would the Democrats do?
If Obama wins, he is expected to rely more on soft power (diplomacy) than on hard power (military intervention). Most likely, a Democratic administration would seek the help of regional powers and international organisations in dealing with Iraq and Iran. Obama is expected to abandon Bush's unilateral approach to the region, and he doesn't seem to favour a military strike against Iran.
An Obama-led administration is expected to offer Iran a "grand bargain". In other words, the nuclear dispute will be tackled along with other things, such as Iran's regional role, security arrangements in the Gulf, Iraq, and Tehran's relations with various countries and groups in the region. In a carrot-and- stick approach, Iran will be tempted with membership in the World Trade Organisation and threatened with UN sanctions. Only if Iran continued to endanger US interests in the region, including Israel, would a military strike be considered.
What would the Republicans do?
Should McCain become the next US president, he is likely to favour military action over diplomacy, just as Bush did. I would therefore expect a military strike against Iranian nuclear installations. A McCain-led administration is not likely to engage Iran in negotiations or turn a new page with Tehran. Furthermore, a Republican administration is likely to see the region as composed of two camps: pro- American moderates on the one hand and anyone who challenges US policy on the other.
What should we expect?
Obama may be the best bet for the Arabs, but don't expect him to change US policy in any radical way. The US has a stable strategy in the Middle East, one that doesn't change with the change of administrations or individuals.
Moreover, the new US president is likely to spend most of his first term tackling problems at home rather than sorting out our region. After all, he is answerable to those who elected him, not to the people of this region.
* The writer is a political researcher in American affairs and coordinator of Taqrir Washington website.