Obama has another chance to address the Middle East. Will he use it, asks Ezzat Ibrahim in Washington
The Middle East agenda has moved to an advanced priority among Washington’s specialists after the elections. It is too early to make a judgement on the next US move in the region but there are a lot of hopes after a disappointing first term.
The White House agenda is fully occupied with urgent domestic issues and atop the concerns is the “fiscal cliff” and the fight with Congress to work on a compromise. However, the future of the United States, according to The New York Times, “will be shaped as much by the foreign policy and defence decisions he makes over the next four years as by those on the domestic side.”
The situation in the Middle East should get special attention from the US president in the coming months and years but will he be able to deliver? This is an open question that might not get an answer soon. In the beginning, a shake-up in the administration and the possible departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would leave a short pause on handling foreign policy issues. The Syrian crisis and Iran’s nuclear programme will continue to occupy the US Middle East agenda for months to come but both cases cannot be separated from a more plausible grand strategy in the region.
Such a grand strategy should include a more coherent policy towards the Arab Spring countries and specifies certain benchmarks for Islamist-majority governments, especially America’s most important ally in the region, Egypt. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a distinctive mark of Obama’s first term, but it did not allow him to escape the Republicans’ criticism for the way he is handling the transformation in the Middle East and North Africa. In US Congress and other political circles, terrorism is still an urgent task that Obama needs to confront more aggressively in the second term since there is a sense of growing threat all over the region.
Despite the fact that Al-Qaeda has been weakened in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the emergence of Salafi jihadists in more than one part of the Arab world — most alarming the jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula — would put Obama under pressure to deal with the sources of threat to US, Israel, and Arab allies interests. “The moment has arrived, and the world’s problems are lining up for Obama’s attention. To manage them, Obama will have to make decisions of the sort he sometimes deferred during his first term,” David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post last week.
On Syria, it seems that last week’s agreement between opposition groups in Doha and the US endorsement has shown the first sign to move in the US planned direction which seeks to using US military power against the regime in Damascus.
The presidential campaigns had narrowed the differences between Mitt Romney and Obama and showed how limited the US options are when it comes to the role of Washington to influence the course of events in the Arab Spring countries. Both Democrats and Republicans came out of the elections with almost identical views on Middle East politics.
The formula that most observers in Washington accept says that the US should stop short of dictating democratic values, but it needs, before offering more economic and financial assistance to the newly-assigned governments in the Arab world, to push for more commitment to the rule of law, human rights and respecting the democratic process.
From the national security approaches, the American think-tanks and analysts are mulling over some critical aspects that might affect the US interests in the long-run: the cost of the Egyptian transition and how to avoid the enduring discussion of democracy versus stability. “There are many questions regarding the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements that need answers from Cairo and Washington,” a US ex-diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly.
There is a growing belief in Washington that Sinai security would have an impact on the future relationship between the two countries and push the US administration to get a quick revision to its policy towards the new government. For months, the US diplomats have warned against the economic backlash in Egypt and the lacking of a clear reform programme that would have more implications on the US approach in the short-term.
When Congress reconvenes within a few days, the US legislators will seek answers to specific questions that Republican Congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent to Clinton in a letter expressing concerns and raising a number of questions regarding the administration’s recent notification to Congress of its intent to provide $450 million in cash transfers to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egypt.
Ros-Lehtinen’s letter also asks the administration numerous questions about its current policy on Egypt with regard to democracy promotion, protection of minority communities and human rights. The Republicans retained a majority in the House of Representatives and Democrats have extended their majority in the Senate. Last week, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sent a congratulatory telegram to President Obama in which he said he hoped Obama’s re-election would strengthen the friendship between the two countries.
The Egyptian government, among others in the region, hopes that a second term would free Obama’s hand to help their economies and to push hard to reach a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is widely believed in Washington that little can be achieved as long as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stays in office and Palestinians’ division between Fatah and Hamas continues, but experts expect that Obama would try to overcome such challenges through cooperation with different parties in the region, including Egypt and Turkey.
To sum up, some senior analysts are pessimistic about Obama’s second term. “Risk aversion abroad rather than risk-readiness ought to be his watchword, particularly in the Middle East,” wrote Aaron David Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations, “this president’s legacy is ending wars not starting new ones; keeping America safe from terror attacks and fixing the country’s broken economic house if he can.”