President Obama has some fundamental challenges to deal with in the Middle East
United States President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the Korean Demilitarized Zone from Observation Post Ouellette at Camp Bonifas in South Korea. © Chuck Kennedy
President Obama has some fundamental challenges to deal with in the Middle East
Last updated: April 29, 2013

Obama wins. But will his Middle East policy change?

President Barack Obama was reelected on Tuesday evening, confirming that Americans want to stay on the course set out by his administration four years ago.

Although Obama has received both praise and criticism for his first term’s foreign policy performance, scholars and experts interviewed by Your Middle East expressed tepid belief that Obama’s decisions towards the Arab world might slightly change as he begins his final four years as US Commander in Chief.

In the first term of his presidency, the President took a “pragmatic approach” to his foreign policy agenda, said George Washington University Professor Elizabeth Saunders.

Obama implemented a “reasonably robust national security framework” during his first term, added Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a doctoral student at Harvard University. Many experts expect that this type of governance will likely continue as events in the Middle East continue to unfold with various degrees of unpredictability in the next four years.

Brown University Professor and author of the Lebanon-centric blog, Qifa Nabki, Elias Muhanna also affirmed that the security framework implemented by Obama is not radically different from what Romney would have pursued as president.

“My sense is that things won't really change one way or the other,” Muhanna said in an email to Your Middle East. “That sounds pessimistic, but I just don't see all that much difference between the candidates as far as Mideast policy is concerned.”

Some scholars have observed that Obama’s largest foreign policy failures thus far have been with his decisions regarding Israel and Palestine.

“The Iranian nuclear issue has displaced all that,” Joshi said. “And it did deserve a lot of attention, but it shouldn’t have displaced the Middle East peace process…He has really allowed the issue to completely languish in a way.”

One of Obama’s biggest international challenges in his second term as president will be dealing with Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities.

“Iran depends partly on circumstances beyond his control,” Joshi said. “Will Iran continue to enrich uranium? It’s somewhat beyond his control, but he might find himself in a very adverse situation. I don’t honestly think he can do much other than show some sensible diplomacy and agree to a deal that allows Iran to retain some enrichment capability. And if he can reach a deal, I think it could be a real achievement, a lasting accomplishment.”

As a president who will not face the prospect of reelection in 2016, Obama may be better poised to make decisions based off what he believes to be the right actions instead of having to pander to certain constituencies. Although Obama himself has indicated that he can be a stronger advocate after winning reelection, Joshi said he was skeptical that unfolding current events will allow much deviation from his previous leadership style.

“He might then be more willing to negotiation in a sensible way with Iran. But then of course, there is an Iranian election in June, so that makes everything so much more complicated. And don’t forget — he still has a Congress that is fairly hostile.”

On the issue of Afghanistan, Obama will be incentivized to adopt a more “risk-adverse, non-interventionist direction,” Joshi said.

One of the most significant upcoming changes in the Obama administration will be the departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton has promised that if Obama were to win a second term, she would step down as Secretary of State. Although the Obama administration has not yet announced a timeline for her replacement, there are many rumors surrounding potential successors.

Saunders, Joshi and Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Matthew Baum all noted that former Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry has positioned himself to assume the role.

“If I was going to guess, it seems like it’s leaning towards Kerry,” Baum said. “It certainly seems like he is lobbying for the job, and I think he was definitely positioning himself with his speech at the (Democratic National Convention in August).”

Joshi also suggested that United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice may be in consideration for the Secretary of State position.

“But I haven’t seen anything to suggest that they have made up their minds yet.”

He also said that due to the war in Afghanistan’s 2014 withdrawal timeline, it is unlikely that Obama will replace Leon Panetta as Defense Secretary, but there might be some significant changes at the undersecretary level.

Although many agreed that Obama performed reasonably well in his first term when dealing with issues such as Libya and the death of Osama bin Laden, Saunders said that his foreign policies likely did not factor significantly into Tuesday’s win.

“Foreign policy rarely features in an election,” Saunders said. “The economy just matters a lot more. We’re all busy people, so it is hard to be experts on everything. Foreign policy is something we typically delegate to our leaders to take care of.”

Katie Gonzalez
Katie is a Haifa-based regular contributor for Your Middle East.
blog comments powered by Disqus