Commentary

Regional Wariness and Obama's Second Term

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Barack Obama was publically sworn in yesterday to a second term as President of the United States of America. Over eight hundred thousand people came to listen to President Obama as he laid out an ambitious and largely progressive agenda for the next four years. Yet, compared to Obama’s last inaugural speech in 2009, there was a sense of realism from the president as well as the people and the media observers as to what might be achievable. For commentators and media outlets in the Middle East that sense of wariness — and even downright pessimism — reflects what many perceive as a very treacherous political landscape in the region. This, coupled with entrenched interests in the United States, could foreclose certain compromises, especially regarding the Israeli-Arab peace process.

Obama’s second term challenges are the subject of an incisive editorial by the UAE daily The National, which accurately points out that “Mr Obama's second inaugural lacked the electric enthusiasm of his first, when 1.8 million people crammed on to the National Mall. Yesterday's theme was in sharp contrast to the giddy optimism of hope and change that pervaded that speech. It reflected some of the bitter political lessons of the past four years, as well as tempered expectations for the next term....As the second term begins, challenges in the Middle East will dominate the agenda of his next secretary of state. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme appear likely, although their outcome is far from certain. The bloody war in Syria threatens to destabilize the Levant, and Al Qaeda is resurgent in North Africa. But the inauguration offered a moment of symbolism and reflection for Americans as they contemplate the next four years.”

Another Gulf daily, the Peninsula, also contrasts the expectations surrounding the second term with those of the first term, while not hiding its disappointment with Obama’s failure to live up those expectations: “Yes, we can. Obama proclaimed and got elected in 2009. Yes, he could have. But he didn’t. Or, he didn’t at least the way most of us expected of him. It’s this reality that haunts us as Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term....It should work in his favor that in the second term, Obama will not be constrained by the compulsions of a first term and therefore must garner more courage on policy issues. He needs to act more decisively on the Palestinian issue and Syria, where his intervention is keenly awaited. Unfortunately, a virulently right-wing government to be led by Benjamin Netanyahu will come to power in Israel soon. Obama’s policy on Palestinian issue has been a refusal to engage with Netanyahu, with whom he has a fractious relationship.”

Still, there is no doubt, as Asharq Alawsat’s Abdel Monem Said notes, that the role of the U.S. continues to be essential in the world arena and that Obama, despite his preeminent position at the head of a powerful military, will have to choose his battles: “The United States' importance to the world order, with the Middle East at the heart of it, cannot be overemphasized. Similarly, the importance of the U.S. President cannot be overemphasized....Simply put, the world is large and time is short. Hence Obama has no interest in dealing with the Middle East as long as Iran cannot produce a nuclear bomb and Israel's security remains impregnable…. At one point, President Obama thought that the Middle East could be a springboard for his new alliance, either through Arab-Israeli peace or through the ‘Arab Spring.’ However, Arab-Israeli peace remains prisoner to a century of struggles, and the states of the Arab Spring have found out that it is easier to regress fourteen centuries back in time than catch up with the 21st century.”

And, at least judging from the absence of the Palestinian delegation at the inaugural events, there is little hope for a far reaching Arab-Israeli peace accord. In Palestine, people have reacted with dismay to news that due to a “mix up” the White House staff had failed to extend an invitation to the Palestinian delegation: “Scores of foreign dignitaries and diplomats were among the hundreds of high-profile guests seated near Barack Obama on the western steps of the Capitol yesterday....But one diplomat from a people long denied statehood [Palestine], in some ways as a direct result of U.S. policy, had no seat at the festivities yesterday....The White House, for its part, is wary of any involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, even as it engages with the new democracies of the Middle East. Virtually no Middle East analyst expects Mr Obama to spend much time or political capital in his second term attempting to restart the peace process. More strategically important foreign policy challenges in the Middle East and Asia will absorb the administration's attention.”

But even regional observers caution that it is not only the international political landscape that is bound to give Mr. Obama headaches. Many point to a gathering domestic storm over spending and entitlements that can further tie Mr. Obama’s hands: “His historic ascent to the White House in 2008 came with soaring public hopes and expectations for a new kind of governance that would close the vast partisan gulf developed in recent decades. However, a list of challenges that included an inherited economic recession and repeated battles with congressional Republicans over budgets and spending only hardened the opposing positions in Washington. Obama's signature achievements, including major reforms of the health care industry and Wall Street, became symbols of political division, with opponents constantly accusing him of hindering needed economic recovery.”

No wonder, then, that, as the Khaleej Times editorial argues, the most important question of President Barack Obama’s second term will be how he balances a shifting international picture with an increasingly challenging domestic terrain: “As the first African-American president took [the] oath of office for a second-term, there is no dearth of challenges before him....Obama will be on his toes as he enters into strategic bargaining with Russia, China and many of the developing economies of Asia and South America. Obama’s vision of stationing missile-defense warships in Black Sea and working closely with Russia in dealing with Iran and Syria are other indispensable challenges. So will be the case with Beijing where the new leadership will like to take its own time in responding to Washington’s initiatives....It remains to be seen how Obama choreographs his moves on the international front while coping with domestic woes besides a trillion dollar debt deficit.”


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