Four more years of Obama's Middle East

Like most modern American presidents, Obama will likely try to secure his legacy by a bold foreign policy initiative. All the more reason to be concerned

What now, Mr. President?
Jeremy Havardi
On 13 November 2012 22:15

Now that America has re-elected Barack Obama, it is time to ask what his second term might usher in for the Middle East, especially Israel. If he is like most modern American presidents, Obama will try to secure his legacy by a bold foreign policy initiative, as well as lasting reform at home. 

But this should give us pause for thought. For if the President's first term provides any guide, we can expect him to apply more pressure on Israel, appease the Muslim Brotherhood, and offer more half-hearted initiatives in confronting Iran's nuclear programme.

During his first term, Obama's exasperation with Netanyahu was obvious to any observer. Not only did he regard the PM as a barrier to the peace process, he fixated on Jewish settlements as a prime obstacle to negotiations. If, as expected, Bibi wins the 2013 election, it is hard to see those relations improving in any way. 

It is feasible that Obama will pressure Israel into making more concessions to the PA, including quite possibly another settlement freeze. No doubt this will be done in the belief that such concessions will revive the moribund peace process and moderate the position of Mahmoud Abbas. 

Yet the PA leader is, in political terms, a dead man walking. His term having expired in 2009, Abbas has as much legitimacy as some of the autocrats that Obama abandoned during the Arab Spring. And with his commitment to unilateral statehood and the right of return, Abbas is scarcely a moderate in any case. If the Obama administration succeeds in forcing more Israeli concessions, it will simply entrench Palestinian stubbornness and weaken Israel's position.

During his first term, Obama also went out of his way to accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt. Having turned his back on Hosni Mubarak, the President engaged with Mohammed Morsi, at least partly in the belief that newly 'democratised' Islamists could reject their jihadi roots and become respectable political players. 

It is not unreasonable to assume that in his second term, Obama will increase ties with 'moderate' Islamists, whether in Egypt, Afghanistan or the disputed territories. 

Now, some argue that this policy offers the only hope of managing the protracted conflict in Afghanistan. But applied more generally, it will simply empower the violently anti-western, anti-Semitic and anti-democratic forces of regional jihad, encouraging the Brotherhood to believe that America is in retreat and that the region is theirs for the taking. This is a recipe for more rather than less attacks on western interests. 

But most worrying of all are the Presidential initiatives concerning Iran's nuclear programme. During the last four years, Obama has adopted a carrot and stick approach to Iran, involving both negotiation and increasingly tough sanctions. 

These have failed to bring a halt to the nuclear programme and bought valuable time for the Islamic Republic. Already there are strong hints that a further round of talks will take place early in the President's second term, possibly in December 2012.

If these talks fail, sanctions will doubtless be strengthened at the insistence of Congress. But this is hardly a guarantee that Obama will begin preparing for a US-led assault on Iran's nuclear facilities. It is more likely that he will do anything to avoid another military entanglement in the Middle East, reflecting the war weariness of the American public. 

This would mean Washington and Jerusalem continuing to diverge on how to handle this threat, with Israel undermined for insisting (rightly) on a more robust response. One can only expect the familiar stream of accusations and recriminations to worsen as we enter next year.

But in the unlikely event that the US does broker a face-saving deal for Iran, one which perhaps leaves Tehran with a quantity of enriched uranium, Israel's room for manoeuvre will be extremely limited. After any such deal, an Israeli strike on Iran will appear to be the act of an aggressor intent on upsetting regional peace rather than an act of self defence. 

Of course, it remains notoriously difficult to make predictions about a region as volatile as the Middle East. Unforeseen events exercise a powerful momentum of their own, as we have seen in the last two years. But if the first Obama term provides any guide, there are more than a few reasons to be concerned during the next four years. 

Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books, Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton

blog comments powered by Disqus