Raghida Dergham
November 5, 2010 - 12:00am

New York-Domestic affairs, and especially the economy, will remain the prime concern of US President Barack Obama, who suffered a historic defeat at the midterm elections this week. And US public opinion will remain angry, seeking change and demanding that their government take every measure that would place “America first”. However, the Republicans winning the House of Representatives and the likelihood of conservatives (both Republicans and Democrats) dominating the Senate will place foreign policy on the table for concession or confrontation, most likely with Iran and its spreading influence in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Indeed, Republicans and conservatives want to lower spending on local programs and are opposed to Obama allocating 900 billion dollars to them. They want to increase spending on defense and on weapons manufacture, in order to create job opportunities, and also in order to prove America’s strength in the world. The Democrats under Obama embraced dialogue, engagement and promises of bountiful dreams, until they awoke to a difficult and bitter reality, domestically and internationally. As for the Republicans, they waited for mistakes in the era of “Obamism”, prepared to turn the tables on what they label “left wing” or “socialism”, which they claim “Obamism” to represent, and started moving towards removing Barack Obama from the White House with the end of his first term.

What warrants monitoring is not just how the pull and tug or competition will take place between Republicans and Democrats at the domestic level for the next two years, but also how international players – both governmental and non-governmental – will interpret the results of the midterm elections, and the decisions they will take accordingly. If their interpretation is that the Republicans are inevitably returning to the White House, will this lead to a radical turnaround towards the Democratic President, either to allow him to remain in the White House or to apply the formula of “take and demand more”? And if they conclude that the American “center” will demand further concessions from Barack Obama, specifically on the basis of his foreign policies towards Iran and Syria or the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, what will then be the measures taken by the governments concerned? Indeed, everyone watched Barack Obama’s facial features on the day following the elections, features indicating that a different man, a new man, had entered the Oval Office in the White House this week.

American voters have expressed their disapproval of the Democrats and directed what is nearly reproach and humiliation to Barack Obama, who was excessive in making lavish promises and who turned the promise of hope and change in 2008 into an overwhelming disappointment in 2010. What American voters have said is that they oppose the state of affairs they are in today, primarily at the domestic and economic level, yet without completely overlooking the situation of the United States on the international scene.

Barack Obama’s popular base still stands to his left and wants him to fight and resist the Republicans and the Tea Party movement. Yet they also want him to remain flexible, interactive, understanding and turning the other cheek for another slap in the face, because tolerance is their choice and because these supporters do not want any war under any circumstances. And if they are asked: what if the decisive choice is either a military strike against nuclear sites in Iran or Iran obtaining the nuclear bomb? They would then reply that they want neither of the two, and would just stop there. Indeed, this main base for Obamism has given its blessings to swift withdrawal from Iraq and has opposed “Obama’s war” in Afghanistan.

Most of them are burying their heads in the sand, as they are by nature socially open and militarily isolationist at the global level. In their view, wars and military industries were created by the Republicans and conservatives, old or new (neo), and that the latter are the ones who started on the path of America’s bankruptcy and of filling the pockets of big companies.

The Republican popular base wants the government to play its role as its natural size should be, instead of interfering in every matter, great and small. They want America to be the world’s sole superpower, no matter what this requires in terms of adventures beyond their borders or of unparalleled spending. Indeed, in Iraq, the US Department of Defense has from the start of the war to date spent over 620 billion dollars, and in Afghanistan about 200 billion dollars. What it spent in Iraq monthly exceeded 5.5 billion dollars, and what it is now spending in Afghanistan exceeds 7 billion dollars, and in fact comes closer to two billion dollars a week. Those are tremendous amounts that no ordinary country could spend. And what is such spending on these two wars but an investment in ensuring the superiority and greatness of America on the international scene, from the point of view of the majority of Republicans and conservatives?

Afghanistan represents an interesting phenomenon in the relationship between, on the one hand, Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in this war, and on the other conservative Republicans who believe that it is necessary to continue fighting this war, not in order to “build the state” in Afghanistan but in order to win a military victory. Moreover, the massive natural resources recently revealed in Afghanistan remain underground and require massive investments. This is why some Republicans have started talking about the necessity of reexamining the war in Afghanistan and lowering war spending there.

Iraq is a different matter. Barack Obama wanted to quickly get out of Iraq, but the Republicans want to renegotiate the strategic agreement between the United States and Iraq, with the aim of having the next Iraqi government present a request to reexamine the schedule for the withdrawal of US troops, i.e. to extend their stay beyond the coming year.

The issue of Iraq will be important in the balance of concessions that will be required by the new relationship between the Executive Branch, as represented by the White House, and the Legislative Branch, as represented by the two houses of Congress – the Senate and the House of Representatives. Iraq might be the easiest of the series of understandings and concessions that will take place, first because the request to extend staying would come from the Iraqi government, which would not represent backing down for Barack Obama, and second because he has begun to realize what his policy towards Iran has led to, as well as to understand that the arenas for dealing with Iran are not just on Iranian soil, where he has abandoned the opposition, but also in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine.

Indeed, the Republicans want to refocus on Iran for several reasons, among them the fact that they categorically refuse to have Iran obtain the nuclear bomb, as well as the fact that they do not exclude directing a US military strike – or supporting an Israeli strike – against Iran, because Obama’s policy over the past two years has proved to be a terrible failure in convincing Iran to comply with diplomacy.

Obama could point to successes in his policy towards Iran, in particular his gathering the support of Russia and China behind strengthening sanctions against Iran in a UN Resolution at the Security Council. He could point out the importance of starting a new chapter with Russia, at the bilateral level as well as within the framework of relations with Iran, especially as the relationship between Russia and Iran has witnessed tension or deterioration. However, what he cannot claim is the success of the policy of begging for dialogue with Iran, or the policy of accommodating Iran or Syria. Indeed, neither is Iraq an example of such success, nor Lebanon, where the worst is yet to come, both being partially a result of “Obamism”, the proponents of which only a few days ago realized the outcome of their truce-like investments, and were subsequently stricken by fear and panic at what is to come.

What awoke the Obama Administration was primarily Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon and the clarity of Hezbollah’s role in Iran’s strategy, and vice versa. Secondly, it was awoken by Syrian statements at the highest levels which made clear to the US President where he was and what the outcome of his policies had been. Then the midterm elections came to awaken Obama to what he was headed towards in the field of foreign policy concerning the Middle East. To provide an example, the person that will head the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is close to former conservative Ambassador John Bolton and strongly opposed to Iran.

The Republicans will bring back talk of “Iran first”, before the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a process which Barack Obama has failed to bring to maturity after two years, although he said when he assumed his functions that he was giving it priority. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doubtless very happy with the results of the midterm elections, because they will lead to saving him from the pressures of Obamism with Republican protection.

What will happen is that this famous ladder for climbing downwards will be handed to Barack Obama as it was handed in the past to his predecessors. Thus the Palestinian-Israeli issue will not return from now on to the forefront of Obama’s priorities, and in fact his backing down from giving this issue priority will be noticeable. Similarly, he will back away from considering that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is at the core of the US’s national security interests. This will be the result of two things: the mistakes of the Obama Administration and of its Envoy George Mitchell in managing the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis; and the midterm elections, the results of which came to clip Barack Obama’s claws and turn him into a different man, other than the one who walked into the White House two years ago.

Indeed, Barack Obama is no longer the man who “confidently walks like a king” because he has entered history as the first black man in the White House, his arrival surrounded by unparalleled global enthusiasm. Today he is a man besieged, one who has made mistakes. He is a man who is candidate to the presidency while holding the post. He is a man threatened to have his presidency taken away from him, as he is now known as a one-term president. Perhaps he will surprise the world once again and set ablaze another revolution of a different kind. Yet Barack Obama today is not the Barack Obama of yesterday. And it is important for him to reconsider his personality, not just his policies. Indeed, it is impossible for any man to lose all of this momentum that brought him to the White House in just two years.

And because the world contributes to shaping America – regardless of how isolationist it may be or not – it would be very useful for Barack Obama to change some fundamental policies and to stop adopting emotional policies. He must reexamine numerous strategies before he is dragged to taking emotional decisions by measures and events dictated by Al-Qaeda in Yemen or in Lebanon, dictated by Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon or in Iraq, or dictated by Syria to its neighborhood in Lebanon first and in Iraq second, and dictated by Israel on Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and also Iran.

Indeed, the conclusion that local and regional players will reach is that the US midterm elections have resulted in new balances in terms of accommodations, concessions and trade-offs, or of confrontations and challenges. Indeed, there are new tools for extracting concessions from Barack Obama. Nevertheless, there are also new considerations, perhaps based on the fact that there is today a different man in the White House.


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