Obama’s Last Term and the Middle East: What’s Next?
It is common political wisdom that things change when a president is elected to a second term because he is no longer constrained by the need to be reelected. He can govern in a more freewheeling manner consistent with his most deeply held convictions and the next election be damned. This is a slight simplification since presidents have other obligations and limits on their behavior, but it remains true that a second term in office makes it more possible to legislate for one’s legacy. So how will Obama’s second term in office change his approach to the Middle East and Israel in particular? I think there are three changes we might see during Obama’s second term.
First, Obama and Netanyahu need to start over or at least recalibrate their relationship. During his first term Obama was not particularly energized by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, he would like to be remembered as the president that achieved the elusive goal of peace but probably realizes that this is unlikely. Still, Obama will not forget that Israel is a true friend and he will continue to support it through good times and bad. Obama and Netanyahu will move closer together and work to achieve common goals and manage common threats. Obama mentioned Israel many times during the campaign and this was more than simple campaign rhetoric. It represented the importance of the Israel-US relationship.
Israel and the US have a long and strong relationship that has changed somewhat but remains a strategic advantage to both. Israel assists the US with security threats and increasingly influences US military research and development. The two countries not only cooperate economically but have strong cultural resonances. Despite the fact that the US jeopardizes its relationships with the Arab world because of its close relationship with Israel, the US continues to balance these relationships. For example the US still relies on stable but nondemocratic countries such as Saudi Arabia to influence interests in the area. This represents US pragmatism as well as fundamental foreign policy convictions. All of this is consistent with Netanyahu’s primary concern for Israel’s safety and security. The relationship between the US and Israel as well as the importance of cooperation (on issues such as a nuclear Iran, terrorist intelligence, foreign aid, and military readiness) will be the foundation for a renewed relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.
Secondly, Obama has other issues in the Middle East he must attend to. Syria is coming apart, a nuclear Iran is coming together, and the politicization of Islam is on the rise. Netanyahu and Israel will certainly be helpful with these matters but, ironically, Israel must be kept at bay otherwise their presence will inflame the situation. But there are limits to what Obama can do to resolve these conflicts. In the cases of Syria and Iran Obama must diplomatically pull strings from the background and this is always slower and more difficult. But one thing is for sure: Obama will be better in managing this than Romney. Obama is more interested in helping Israel with less violence and more compromise and this is important. This is a different perspective than the one from those who supported Romney for president because they thought Obama lacked a clear commitment to Israel.
Obama represents a more diplomatic and a slower foreign-policy hand than either Romney or Bush before him. A second term will ensure that he will be better able to express this agenda. I think Obama will spend more time working with moderate regional states to achieve interests on their own rather than waiting for the United States. For example, the US does not have a taste for supplying Syrian rebels with weapons; thus, Obama will work to triangulate interests of others to form blocks and coalitions that might be better able to achieve goals. Again, this is slower and more frustrating – and leads those with more macho foreign-policy tendencies to be critical – but is closer to an approach that will be successful. International alliances based on common interests of preventing terrorism and stopping those who would intimidate their own citizens are most able to build successes.
A third trend for Obama’s second term should be increased attention to human rights, especially with respect to foreign policy. Obama was actually not very vulnerable to attack from the right during the campaign with respect to strength in foreign policy. His killing of Osama bin Laden, the “surge” of troops in Afghanistan, and his rather casual acceptance of questionable security practices (under the guise of security and strength) have been roundly criticized. Obama has been lax with respect to the promise to close Guantanamo, warrantless wiretapping, and drone attacks. I am convinced that he continued these policies for fear of appearing to be a weak liberal and now that he has no more elections to condition his behavior, Obama will turn his attention to the recognition of human rights. Drone attacks have essentially replaced the interrogation room and courtroom. They deliver a death sentence without confronting the knotty legal questions about interrogation or innocence.
The campaign is over but not the resonances in the deserts of the Middle East. After the world is finished congratulating him on his election victory, they will look to the United States for assistance and guidance. Obama will be more puppetmaster than puppet.