Second Obama administration and the new Middle East

Second Obama administration and the new Middle East

We are less than one and a half months away from the presidential elections in the United States. As the election politics could reveal ups and downs, scandals, or grand failures in campaigns for both parties, one thing is clear: Republican candidate Mitt Romney wrecked havoc with his chances of being elected as president when he, at a private fundraising event in Florida, described 47 percent of Americans as being “dependent on government support” and having a strong propensity to vote for Obama. He went on to say: “my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

If Obama does not make any unprecedented mistake surpassing his opponent’s, then he can cling on as president for a second term after Nov. 6. His number one priority in domestic politics will continue to be the economy. On the foreign policy front, he will continue to be preoccupied with the politics of the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the U.S. embassy bombing in Benghazi, Libya, and the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other State Department officers. At this juncture, the critical questions are about how would he design and implement a policy capable of calming and engaging restive Arab countries that are going through difficult times as basic government functions such as security, jobs and the working economy are of little avail? Adding anti-Americanism to this combustible mix and the time-honored perception of U.S. policies in the Middle East, what parameters could Obama delineate to further American interests and leave a legacy that could turn the tide and establish a new doctrine of constructive engagement in the region?

It is a fact that in its first term the Obama administration pursued a policy of gradual disentanglement in the region, as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, acted cautiously in the Arab Spring milieu, utilized economic sanctions through the U.N. instead of military confrontation against Iran for its nuclear ambitions, and seemed reluctant to intervene in the bloody civil war in Syria. These were steps taken precisely to tone down American involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, so that Obama could live up to the promise of “a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim world” that he made in his 2009 Cairo speech. However, the Arab masses seem unsatisfied with the Obama administration’s record, given that angry mobs violently protested in the streets of Cairo, Benghazi, Sana’a, and the like, due to the infamous movie that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.

In addition to working with the new actors in the post-revolutionary Arab world, especially the moderate Islamists, what Obama can and should do - after thoroughly assessing its viability, material and political U.S. capabilities - is to kick start a renewed peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians at the very beginning of his second term. Knowing that many efforts like the 2000 Camp David initiative by President Clinton have previously failed, and that the obstacles before peace are much larger and the hope for peace is marginal at best on both sides, President Obama does not have any other option but to initiate talks by recognizing the deep-rooted links between the Palestinian cause and the Arab world. He should also bear in mind Israel’s complex domestic political structure and the genuine concerns about its survival and security. Any politically informed individual could comprehend that this is a task that is, realistically, almost impossible. However, this could be the only chance Obama has to show his leadership and deploy a doctrine of engagement in the Middle East, as the only viable window of opportunity for the foreseeable future is available in 2013.

*İsa Afacan is an assistant professor of International Relations at Gaziantep’s Zirve University