George Semaan
Al-Hayat (Opinion)
November 13, 2012 - 1:00am

The United States cannot quit its responsibilities, regardless of the obstacles and the internal and objective difficulties getting in the way of the performance of its leading role around the world, knowing it does not wish to relinquish this position, which it has occupied since the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, this role can use various expressions and means, considering that the international developments in numerous regions firstly require the reassessment of the ways to maintain America's position. There are old and new challenges that Barack Obama's administration will have to handle during this second term, considering that the United States cannot limit its role to the domestic arena, regardless of its economic and social troubles.

At the beginning of his first term, former President George Bush Jr. had decided to stay away from the Palestinian cause, in light of the strenuous efforts deployed by his predecessor Bill Clinton with both the Israeli and Palestinian commands, without resulting in anything but failure. He thus chose to distance himself from anything that might preoccupy his administration from the domestic issues. But the Europeans had concerns about this inclination and were worried about the idea of America's isolation, although the ghost of war with the Soviet bloc on their arenas had completely dissipated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the Washington and New York invasions soon pushed Bush's administration to cross the Atlantic Ocean, even to attack the world in a way never seen throughout history. We thus saw the occupation of Afghanistan, followed by the war on Iraq, the ongoing fight against terrorism and the American troops' deployment everywhere. This attack not only disregarded the United Nations' mechanisms and the remaining international institutions, but also the presence of other superpowers around the world with interests and intricate relationship networks in several regions. Consequently, the world which applauded the fall of the Eastern bloc started hoping for the emergence of a new superpower that would impose balance with the United States, in order to establish a minimum level of international stability and peace despite what many states endured – in terms of pain and conflicts – during the era of the two poles.

The economic and social crisis affecting the American domestic scene will impose itself as a priority on the new administration's agenda, especially in light of the acute polarization dividing the country. Still, this administration cannot ignore the external challenges, considering that the American economy cannot be isolated from the economic problems in Europe, or from China whose president Hu Jintao drew up for his successor – a few days before he stepped down – a "new growth model" based on the end of the privileges in the powerful state sector, to refocus on domestic demand. During a conference for the ruling Communist Party, he thus called for speeding up the "out of the border" strategy and the formation of a "large number of multinational corporations on the global level," setting a dual goal to double the country's GDP and per capita income between 2010 and 2020, in a country that still relies on investments and exports at the expense of domestic consumer spending.

Ever since Obama entered the White House, the Chinese concern has been present, and still is, knowing that at the beginning of this year, he announced a new defensive strategy primarily focusing on Asia and the Pacific, without neglecting Washington's commitment to stability in the Middle East. Obama will not shift away from this strategy, which gives priority to the deterrence of China's ambitions to end military monopoly in that region. Indeed, the United States belongs to the Pacific as much as it does to the Atlantic Ocean, and has enhanced its military presence in northern Australian where its troops were offered bases to facilitate deployment in the region. In the meantime, it never relinquished its support to Taiwan and has tried – and still is trying – to strengthen the commercial ties between the countries in the area, in the hope of limiting Beijing's control over the region and pushing it to engage in partnership and cooperation.

Some might argue that during his first term, Obama did not have a specific program or strategy, which is why many of his decisions featured reluctance and lack of initiative, whether at the level of the Palestinian cause, the Syrian crisis or the confrontation with Iran. But one must recognize that he drew up a path from which he never shifted. And while he turned the page of the wars provoked by his predecessor, he gave great attention to cooperation with the superpowers, from China to Europe, going through Russia. He also restored consideration to the international institutions and drew up a clear political course for the building of structures regulating cooperation in the various regions, while granting the major powers in these regions a role in managing their affairs and resolving their crises. This is seen for example in East and Southeast Asia, where America is cooperating with Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam to contain China, but also in Northern Africa where it enjoys relationships of cooperation and partnership with Morocco and Algeria to face the challenges in the area. This is also true in the Gulf where American bases, troops and fleets are deployed to respond to the Iranian threats, and with Turkey and some NATO member states at the level of cooperation in deploying the missile shield and coordination in regard to the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear file, not to mention cooperation with the G20 on the economic level.

At the beginning of his first term, President Obama gave special attention to the Middle East. He thus addressed the Islamic world from Turkey and Egypt, calling for reconciliation and the opening of a new page. He also sent messages to the Iranian people and hastened the negotiations to see the establishment of the two states in Palestine. However, he failed for various reasons, recognizing his inability to meet his promise regarding the two-state solution, or to convince Netanyahu to stop the settlement activities. But in the face of failure in this area, he showed resilience and an insistence on his policy towards Iran, thus refusing to be led into military confrontation with the Islamic Republic despite the pressures exercised by the Likud government and numerous Israeli circles. On the other hand, he did not hesitate to support the Arab spring, although he lacked initiative towards the action in Syria.

It would be difficult to say that during his second term, Obama will turn his back on the Middle East or will not change his positions towards the crises sweeping the region, as there are two constant factors in the United States' basket of strategic interests, constituting an inherent part of these interests, i.e. Israel's security and that of the oil wells and passageways. And while the last electoral campaign hindered his movement and diplomacy, his liberation from this burden will unleash his hands and offer him a wider margin of freedom of action. It would be naïve for some to expect a complete turn, just as it would be naïve for some others to expect the sustainment of the current policy, considering that the fast-moving events in the region, the calculations, relations and interests they affected and the political, economic and security systems they destroyed, will force him to become involved. Therefore, it might no longer be useful to rely on partners, regional powers or envoys to face the developments and their challenges, as the latter require the adoption of fateful decisions and direct intervention from the head and the command, i.e. from the American president and his administration, when the time comes.

At the level of the Palestinian cause, Obama might show reluctance to avoid burning his fingers again. Nonetheless, the authority's step towards the United Nations' General Assembly to earn Palestine's recognition as a non-member state despite Washington's objection, will push him to become engaged in this issue early on. However, he will not become involved to retaliate against Benjamin Netanyahu who supported his opponent Mitt Romney in the last elections. Nonetheless, he will definitely be in a position to exert massive pressures on him if he wants to, and the coming days will reveal Washington's ability to voice a new position, maybe even commitments, that would hasten the return to the negotiations. So, will it be able to promote a trade-off based on the authority's postponement of its step towards the UN in exchange for Netanyahu's return to the negotiations in light of a decision to stop the settlement activities?

As for Iran, which is trying to expand militarily from Sudan, to Sinai, North and South Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, it might not be able to escape dialogue and might be forced to succumb to its conditions to end the brutal sanctions threatening it with full economic collapse. Moreover, its command cannot disregard the pledge Obama made to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons during his term, which is a pledge that is not opposed by Russia and China, which are both participating in the international sanctions on Tehran. But the parties involved in the conflict over the nuclear file do not want war, which is why their field preparations might aim at improving the conditions of dialogue or negotiations when the time comes, at which point many calculations and alliances will shift, from Russia to the Arab world.

And while one of the facets of the Syrian crisis is part of the conflict between Tehran and Washington, the repercussions of this crisis on the region do not allow the continuation of the time game, i.e. cannot wait for the results of the Iranian presidential elections in June. Hence the pressures exercised by America, Europe and Arab countries on the Syrian opposition to unify its political and military ranks, in order to break the military balance of power on the ground and push the regime and its allies (namely Iran and Russia) to change their positions and recognize that card. This would also explain why Bashar al-Assad's regime and its warplanes are trying to break the balance of power in the regime's favor, in preparation for the decisive moment of settlement.

There are three heated files in the Middle East that cannot tolerate any speculations over Obama's policy during his second term, or stalling while waiting for the outcome of dialogue between Washington and Moscow, or between Washington and Beijing or Iran. One could even say that the settlement of those files might hasten dialogue and its results, or else a major and surprising qualitative development in the region might turn the calculations and plans upside down.


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