One can not overstate the importance of the US to the international order and to the Middle East at its heart. Consequently, one can not overstate the importance of the US president. Whatever one might say about the institutionalised state in the US, the authorities vested in Congress, and the major influence of other institutions and political forces both within and outside of the official establishment, there is probably no one else on the face of this earth that has the power to move military as well as economic, moral and other soft power resources equivalent to that of the US president.
True, the office of the presidency may sometimes be vulnerable to bouts of relative weakness. In part this may be due to the electoral system and presidential electoral cycles. In some measure, it may also be due to the personality of the occupant of the Oval Office, which may lead him to an ignominious failure or personal dilemma. The case of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, which paralysed the American leadership for months on end, springs to mind. At another level, Jimmy Carter’s mishandling of the hostage crisis in Iran worked to impede the ability to develop on the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. Similarly, the Iran-Contra affair under Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the failure of the Iraq and Iran wars under George Bush were, each in their own ways, detrimental to the presidency. Note, that every one of these crises occurred in these presidents’ second term in office. In other democratic countries, they would have paralysed government both at home and abroad. Yet, in the American case, regardless of the degree to which these crises sapped some of the authority of the president, they did not diminish his power and status at the global level. He still set the agenda and determined the future of war and peace.
Barack Obama is entering his second term without the same fanfare that accompanied his assumption of office four years ago. Eyes are not brimming with joyful tears, as occurred with Jesse Jackson, the celebrated African-American leader, because Martin Luther King’s dream had come true. Nor does it seem that this time will mark a new beginning for mankind. Obama has achieved some no mean accomplishments, but none are of the magnitude to secure his place in history as a great president. Yes, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in the hope that he would achieve something great, but this something did not pan out. Rather, his accomplishments were in the realm of avoiding disasters or exiting from them. Under his stewardship, the US weathered an economic crisis, yet genuine economic recovery is still a long way off. Although he succeeded in bringing US troops out of Iraq, that country is now plagued with problems no less brutal than those it experienced under dictatorship. In like manner, it appears that Afghanistan is fated to revert to Taliban rule, albeit modified to some extent. In the Middle East, the peace process is dead and it looks like he has given up trying to reconcile Islamic countries with the West. Perhaps, therefore, Obama will go down in history more as a founder or a pathmaker than as an accomplisher. We need to elaborate on this point somewhat, because it serves as a basis for understanding Washington’s forthcoming policies.
Obama’s rise to power was a victory of the coalition between diversity and the modern technologies that are at the fingertips of the younger generations, in particular, and in whose know-how young activists, in particular, have proven very adept. We sometimes tend to forget the Marxist wisdom regarding essential change in the forces of production. Although there has been much talk of “globalisation” and the “IT revolution” since the last end of the last millennium, little attention has been paid to what exactly these phenomena mean in actuality on the ground, which is to say in terms of the relationships of production, ideas and values and, most importantly, the balance of powers between those who are located inside the new historical process and those who remain outside this process. Obama’s coalition with the former — combined with other factors to be sure — brought him to the White House the first time. And it is this coalition that gave him a second chance, even without the aid of the other factors (Mitt Romney was not Jon McCain and the Republican Party was not the same in 2012 as it was in 2008). Equally, if not more importantly, this coalition is what enabled Obama to realise his few achievements. The modern technologies and technological innovators helped make it possible to rescue US industry and they opened ways to energy self-sufficiency. Moreover, they also contributed to more effective handling of major environmental disasters such as the huge oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the eastern seaboard.
Obama is unlikely to change his style of governance in his second term. Indeed, the chances are that he will become more confident in his modus operandi. Even as his first term drew to a close, before being sworn into office a second time, he succeeded in finding common ground with the Republicans in order to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff”. Nevertheless, he can not disregard the fact that, in so doing, he made quite a few concessions, and these tell us that the “socialist” Obama is gone and that now he has to focus on economic growth. This is not just for the sake of the US, but also for the US’s allies in Europe and Japan, which would work to give the coalition that he founded some fertile soil in which to take further root and to expand.
Here, of course, we are naturally curious about the direction Obama’s policies will take in his second term with regard to the Middle East in general and the Arab region in particular. Certainly, Obama will remain committed to a set of well-known constants upon which US policy has been based since World War II. These constants contain a European dimension that takes the form of NATO and the EU, and a Pacific rim dimension which consists of Japan, Australia and South Korea. Within this framework, economic recovery is a foremost aim and confronting or subduing Russia and Iran is a central theme. However, the new coalition has other goals it needs to meet in order to create new territory that appears open and available in China, India and the other emergent Asian powers, as well as in those of Central and South America.
Simply put, the world is big and time is short. Little would draw Obama’s attention to the Middle East these days as long as Iran doesn’t produce a nuclear bomb, Israeli security remains inviolate, while the rest are details and the occasional need for crisis management. For a while Obama must have seen the Middle East as a place for expanding his new alliance with the forces of technology and modernity. At one point he had the hope of an Arab-Israeli peace, but that peace remained captive to a century of conflict and its attendant tentacles from which the parties concerned could not free themselves. At another point, the Arab Spring offered a promising horizon, until this region showed itself more resistant than ever in closing its 14-century wide gap with the 21st century.