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After an exhausting, restless, nail-biting and hair-splitting campaign, President Barack Obama edged out Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Election Day to re-claim his seat in the Oval Office for another four years. For Obama supporters, the victory was an encouraging confirmation of his overall record as Commander-in-Chief during a particularly challenging time in the world. For the Republican Party, the results on election night serve as a reminder that they need to step back and reassess their positions on some of the most important issues of the day.
With the election over, however, President Obama cannot afford to celebrate until the new year or dwell in his electoral success for too long. The United States faces an array of problems on the fiscal front, from a climbing national debt to an alarming prospect that Washington will once again be gridlocked for the next four years.
Foreign policy may not have played an especially vital role in the 2012 presidential election, but that does not mean that the White House can push the subject to the background in a second term. Trying to get the nation’s economy back on a healthy and resilient footing will understandably be at the forefront of the president’s agenda during the beginning of his second-term. Yet a considerable amount of time and attention must also be invested globally, from the Asia-Pacific to an African continent that has not gotten the attention many pundits thought it would.
As should be expected, the Middle East will be one of those regions that can either make or break a president’s foreign policy legacy. Unfortunately, the Middle East is also a part of the world where solutions are rarely simple and peacemaking is hard to come by. But with Obama now reeling from an election victory, one can argue that he now has the time and space to follow through on some unfinished business. Here are some of the top Middle East-related issues that the president needs to tackle throughout his next term:
1. Israeli-Palestinian Peace
Like every president before him, Obama has had a difficult time promoting his Mideast peace agenda. Yet unlike some of his predecessors, he has also attempted to play the role of impartial intermediary between both parties. That effort suffered a critical blow early on in his presidency, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outmaneuvered Obama on the all-to-important settlements issue. Obama’s effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for direct peace negotiations collapsed in the latter part of 2010 after only a few weeks. The White House has been less than active since.
With the election season over, Obama needs to use his newfound flexibility to push through a new round of diplomacy. The two-state solution that all sides see as the best option available is quickly becoming obsolete, with Israel continuing to build settlements and the Palestinians too divided to exert pressure on their own. Mistrust has diluted any effort to get the parties back together, yet the problem is so significant in the eyes of Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs that the effort must be made—however unlikely success may be. Once Israel seats its next coalition government after elections are completed in January, Obama and his peacemaking team need to renew their push for peace. Pressure must be exerted on both sides of the dispute. This will be incredibly difficult thing for the president to do, especially for Obama, who has already been burned on the issue. A solution, however, will not be any easier to attain as time goes by.
The violence and carnage in Syria is getting worse as the months proceed, with the death toll averaging in the triple-digits every single day. The Assad regime and the armed opposition are currently in the midst of a classic, yet brutal, war of attrition, with both sides exerting tremendous damage on the country’s infrastructure without getting closer to a final victory. Entire city districts have been destroyed, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, up to 10 million (by some estimates) have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands have fled Syria for Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The United States and its western allies have been reluctant, if not strongly opposed, to providing the Free Syrian Army with the heavy-weapons and ammunition supplies that are required to put a severe dent on Assad’s air capability. This concern is not without merit, given the insurgency’s increasingly fractured nature and the creeping radicalization and sectarian-bent among some brigades in the opposition. With Obama campaigning and fulfilling his pledge to withdraw the United States from conflicts in the Muslim world, he will remain reluctant in getting involved in another one.
Despite those apprehensions, Washington’s allies in the region are becoming increasingly impatient over what some have categorized as America’s hands-off approach. Turkey especially has been troubled by the lack of assistance from the international community (and from the United States) as thousands of Syrians continue to stream into its refugee camps.
There is an indication that the Obama administration has realized that the United States needs to be more pro-active in the Syria crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public lobbying what an integral reason why the Syrian political opposition has reorganized its ranks to include dissidents who are currently on the ground. With the establishment of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a concerted effort is being made to attract representation from groups who were excluded from the Syrian National Council. Whether this will be enough to silence the critics and soften the blow of an Assad departure remains to be seen, but how fast Assad falls may ultimately depend on what President Obama and his allies in Great Britain and France decide to do.
An issue that is sure to attract the president’s attention during the first few months of his second term is the looming worry over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Of all of the foreign policy issues that were spoken of during the campaign, the Iranian nuclear crisis was by far the most prevalent. Iran was mentioned 47 times during the third presidential debate on foreign policy—an illustration of just how important the issue has become to both sides of the political isle.
As much as the White House would love to terminate Iran’s nuclear enrichment program entirely, there is a good chance that the president and his national-security team recognize that such a maximalist goal is nearly impossible to achieve. After over two decades and billions of dollars in investment, the Iranians are not going to give up their right to enrich domestically, regardless of how tough the international community is. If a coercive sanctions regime that has strangled the Iranian economy has not forced Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to abandon the nuclear program, it is difficult to believe that more sanctions would.
With this realism in mind, the challenge for the president will be to find a formula to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities while taking Tehran’s grievances into consideration. While it is often difficult to pinpoint what Iran truly wants, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may very well accept an agreement that grants his country a low-level enrichment capability in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions. Any Iranian enrichment program, of course, would need to be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with a stringent regime of inspections to ensure compliance.
When all is said and done, only diplomacy can finalize a solution that is both permanent and durable. The president will confront some unwanted pressure from his critics and perhaps a continuation of the “appeasement” argument that those on the far right have leveled against him during his first term. But with no more campaigns to worry about in the future, Obama’s political constraints to hammering such a deal will not be nearly as great.
With a flexible approach to the Iranians and a strong assurance to the Israelis that Washington will not give away too much during the negotiation process, Obama could strike an accord that provides the right mix of concessions and conditions that everyone (including Israel) can live with. Reports that the White House is considering a faster drawdown of oil sanctions in exchange for significant Iranian concessions on the nuclear front is a sign that Obama’s national-security team wants to get talks going again.
Compared to the chaos and carnage of Syria, the Kingdom of Bahrain looks like an island of stability in an otherwise tumultuous part of the world. Situated in the Persian Gulf between its two giant neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has long relished in its depiction as a rich and friendly state that is kind to its people and tolerant to all nations. Yet these days, that ideal version of the country is becoming far more difficult to sustain for the al-Khalifa ruling family.
After Egyptians and Tunisians mobilized en masse in the streets of their respective capitals, thousands of Bahrainis decided to launch their own version of the Arab Spring movement. To the delight of pro-democracy advocates worldwide, Bahrainis shouted for a more transparent government and a more empowered parliament—a body that resembles a passive debating society rather than an active legislature. There were calls from some fringe groups for the downfall of the al-Khalifa monarchy, but those voices were overshadowed by a mainstream Shia population that has pushed for more reasonable goals: an end to discriminatory practices and the type of political rights that would reside in a constitutional monarchy.
Rather than meet their people halfway, the Bahraini Government chose to crack down hard. Demonstrators were rounded up, thrown into prison on frivolous charges of endangering the national unity of the monarchy, and in the most extreme cases killed on the streets. Medics who treated the protesters were arrested and charged as well, with the government considering them a part of an Iranian-inspired conspiracy to supplant the monarchy with a Shia religious state.
Since the protest movement was crushed in the capital with the help of the Gulf Arab states, the political conflict in Bahrain has gotten more dangerous. Hardliners on both sides of the issue are slowly supplanting the moderates who have urged for reconciliation. Bahrain police officers are now suffering more casualties from some of the very same protesters who marched peacefully in the streets of Manama last year.
The Obama administration has largely stayed away from Bahrain, viewing the island and its royal family as a strategic asset just across Iranian shores. With the Bahraini Government hosting the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, Washington has embarked on the path of realism— denouncing some of Bahrain’s aggressive actions while keeping the general security alliance ironclad. The problem, at least from the perspective of many Bahrainis, is that words of discouragement from Washington have not had much of an effect on the Bahraini Government’s repressive behavior.
If the US wants to be seen as a country that is unquestionably on the side of the Arab world’s democracy movements, it will have to find a way that puts Bahrain on a tighter leash.
With hundreds of rockets having rained down on southern Israel over the past few months, the Israeli Government has been pushed to the breaking point. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have ordered the Israel Defense Forces to respond to the rocket fire with strength and resolve. For the six days, Israel has undertaken a massive and coordinated aerial campaign against terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. Israeli aircraft accurately hit hundreds of military targets during the first days of the IDF operation, including rocket-launching pads, weapons depots, Hamas command buildings and underground tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border. Hamas’ military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike in the opening hours of the campaign—a hit that has taken an extremely effective military mind off of Hamas’s roster.
Flare-ups of violence between Israel and Gaza-based militants are common. When they do occur, the United States typically follows a two-track policy: Washington reiterates its support for Israel’s right to self-defense, but also calls on all parties to reach an immediate ceasefire before the situation spirals out of control. Egypt has played a vital role in the process, using its contacts with Israel and Hamas to establish short-term ceasefires in order to preserve stability and prevent further casualties among Palestinians and Israelis. Yet the US and Arab supported ceasefires always seem to erode over time, with another round of conflict just around the corner.
Since the United States considers Hamas a terrorist group, the Obama administration has very little leverage inside of Gaza. Relying on Egypt to calm tensions in the Strip has been the de-facto US policy since Hamas kicked out the Palestinian Authority five years ago. Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense is the biggest indication yet that relying on the Egyptians is not going to provide a lasting peace in Gaza.
There are a litany of important issues in the Middle East that are not covered by this list. A Libya struggling to define itself after forty-plus years of dictatorship; a potential succession crisis in the Saudi royal family; and conserving the Egypt-Israel peace accord are only three examples. The five problems discussed above, however, could prove to be the most damaging to US national security if they are kicked down the road and left to fester over the coming four years.