With President Barack Obama’s re-election, many people across the Middle East are contemplating what this region might expect from his second term.
Over the next four years, Obama will likely continue the policy directions set in his first term: by completing the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, and reaching out to global players like Russia and China to improve cooperation on global security and economic issues.
In the Middle East there will be no reason to expect any dramatic shifts. Obama tried and failed to jump-start the Arab-Israeli peace process in his first term, and would be unlikely to make another major effort in the second one.
Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made that less likely by bringing the far-right foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party into his own Likud party, presenting a hard front against any effort to restart the peace process.
Beyond Israel, the covert U.S. drone war against al-Qaida would continue and could spread beyond Yemen, to Libya and Mali.
The U.S. military presence in the Arabian Gulf, designed to ensure the free flow of oil and gas, will endure. But the Gulf states should not take it for granted that the U.S. has a long-term commitment to an expensive and dangerous military presence, particularly as the U.S. becomes increasingly self-sufficient in the field of energy.
“[Under Obama, U.S. policies] might provide better outcomes for the stability and security of the region, and for its gradual political and economic progress.” – Paul Salem, Carnegie Middle East Center
As for post-Arab Spring governments, such as those in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama will likely continue to work with them to encourage economic growth, democratic transition, and commitment to geo-strategic obligations.
Towards the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, a second Obama administration is expected to continue to counsel gradual reform, without pressing strongly.
Managing policy towards Syria and Iran will be more challenging as the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear issue could provide unforeseen surprises. On Syria, Obama will almost certainly continue the cautious approach of withholding direct U.S. military action while providing other forms of support and pushing for more opposition unity. If he could make progress with President Vladimir Putin on global issues, Obama might seek joint U.S.-Russian leadership in bringing about a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis.
On Iran, Obama argues that the current international sanctions are working and covert operations have already slowed the Iranian nuclear program. He will likely continue to push for a breakthrough in the P5+1 talks and hope that heavy sanctions provide Iran with strong incentives to find a way out of its isolation.
In a second term, Obama could afford a deal with Iran which he would have been unable to strike without putting his re-election at risk. However, if no negotiated breakthrough is achieved, there would be a high risk that Israel might force Obama’s hand with a strike against Iranian facilities – with all that might entail in terms of regional fallout.
In all, even though Obama’s next for years might not hold any dramatic changes in terms of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, when hypothetically contrasted with the alternative electoral result, they might provide better outcomes for the stability and security of the region, and for its gradual political and economic progress.
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