What Obama’s reelection means — and doesn’t mean — for the Middle East.
By Geoffrey Levin
Ed Note: This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have already begun theorizing about President Obama’s second-term Middle East strategy. American journalists, more familiar with the temperament of their president, tend to dismiss Israeli fears that Obama will somehow “take revenge” on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his alleged support of Obama’s opponent. Even the president’s most paranoid critics realize that the freshly reelected administration cannot simply “turn” on Israel without igniting a rebellion among Congressional Democrats. The Obama administration’s vocal support of Israel during the current military conflict with Hamas has only further alleviated concerns that the president will dramatically shift his Middle East policy or push Netanyahu in uncomfortable ways.
But in the recent New York Times column “My President is Busy,” Thomas Friedman goes too far in implying that the administration will recuse itself of a second-term push for Middle East peace, a tradition of sorts in recent American presidencies.
There are reasons to doubt the assumption that the recession will induce Obama to be an “at home” president during the next four years. The biggest signal yet was his impassioned defense of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is reported to be the president’s first choice for secretary of state, against the protests of Senate Republicans critical of her statements after the Benghazi consulate attack. Why would the president waste precious political capital in a scarring secretary of state confirmation battle if he plans to focus solely on domestic affairs? True, Obama has yet to make any formal moves to nominate Rice, and may ultimately opt for a less contentions candidate. But if he does pick her, much to the chagrin of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, it will be a show of determination that Obama has never before displayed in making appointments — and we should take it as a sign that he himself plans to stay very active in foreign affairs.
Choosing someone like Senator John Kerry, who, as a former presidential nominee and current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would bring his own personal prestige to the job, would signal that Obama wants to leave foreign policy in safe hands while he focuses on domestic policy. As a well-known public official, Kerry would be a choice not unlike Hillary Clinton four years ago. But Rice would be an entirely different type of secretary of state. Rather than being a “big name” like past Secretaries Clinton, Powell, or Muskie, Susan Rice would be an “insider” secretary of state, one who has advised the president for years and has a close, personal relationship with him. “Insider” secretary of states include James Baker and John Foster Dulles, two of the most active and effective secretaries in modern history, in part because everyone knew they held the president’s ear. Susan Rice may well be Obama’s most trusted advisor on foreign policy; pursuing a bruising public confirmation battle would only further confirm it.
As Aaron David Miller points out, no matter who he picks for secretary of state, Obama will be unable to ignore the Middle East. Israel aside, a civil war rages in Syria, there are calls for King Abdullah II to resign in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to figure out how the lead a “new” Egypt, and as the Benghazi attacks showed, Libya’s story is far from over. Unlike his recent predecessors who worried of Israel/Palestine’s violence spreading outside its borders, Obama must worry about the neighborhood’s instability creeping in. Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi appears restrained thus far, well aware of the realities of Egypt’s dilemma — the country simply cannot afford the anti-Israel policies that protesters demand.
But realism today does not mean that sooner or later, irrational decisions won’t be made. Protests are recurring in Egypt, and Jordan seems more beleaguered than it did even at the Arab Spring’s height. Obama knows that a sense of progress on the Palestinian front will help alleviate domestic pressures on these regimes.
Moreover, America may soon be forced to join or forge a coalition to intervene in Syria. Previous international coalitions to intervene in the Arab world — Iraq in 1991 and 2003 — were both followed by major American attempts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace — the Madrid Conference and the Roadmap to Peace, aimed at pacifying the demands of Muslim coalition partners. Just because American initiative on the Palestine issue seems unlikely now doesn’t mean that it might not unexpectedly become a priority next year.
That said, a second Obama push for Middle East peace does not mean a “take two” of his settlement freeze push — which only served to hinder negotiation efforts in 2009, raising Palestinian hopes that could not be delivered. Obama knows much more now about Middle East politics — or more accurately, the politics of Middle East politics — than during those early abortive attempts to push the two sides to negotiate.
The president also knows much more about Prime Minister Netanyahu. Rumors of a “new Netanyahu” in 2009, of Bibi as a closet dove, proved to be inaccurate. Netanyahu showed his cards last month when he chose to merge party lists with Avigdor Lieberman, who is part of a coalition that some believed was pushing a pragmatic prime minister further to the right. Any efforts for peace in this term will undoubtedly be more discreet and narrowly targeted — focusing on more gestures toward the Palestinians that can be marketed to neighboring countries.
Unlike four years ago, 2013 features a president older and wiser, and a prime minister whose preferences are more clear. Nominating Susan Rice would signal that foreign policy will be a priority in Obama’s second term. At the same time, domestic politics in a changing Arab world mean that attention will return to Israel before long — for an unstable Middle East is one that not even a busy president can afford to ignore.
Geoffrey Levin is a Senior Editor at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
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