President Barack Obama’s solid, hard-fought re-election victory represents a significant moment not only for America but for its changing relations with the Middle East. While the election was not primarily fought on foreign policy issues, I don’t fully agree with my Foreign Policy friends that foreign policy didn’t matter. Obama’s strong, consistent, and significant lead on his handling of national security and foreign policy — with, if judged by the debates and the campaigns, the rest of the world (outside of the economically nefarious China) defined overwhelmingly in terms of the Middle East — both defined him as a leader and blocked potential lines of Republican attack. It may not have been decisive for many voters but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a crucial background feature of the evaluation of the incumbent. Had he not been viewed so positively on foreign policy, it would have mattered.
So what now? The election campaign, and not only the outcome, should be seen as the rout of the neo-conservativism of the disastrous 2001-06 period of the Bush administration and the consolidation of a broad, bipartisan foreign policy consensus. This new consensus began when the Bush administration cleaned house at the end of 2006 and carried out its major course correction, and has been developed, changed, and institutionalized by Obama over the last four years. It was telling that in the foreign policy debate, Romney desperately attempted to embrace the very Obama policies which his conservative base had long denounced as worse than disastrous. Some GOP hawks will probably argue that he lost because he failed to articulate such a clear, hawkish foreign policy vision. But it seems more likely that Romney’s polling showed that Obama’s approach resonated with the
American popular mood and that he stood little to gain beyond his base with an open embrace of the failed Bush policies of 2001 to 2006.[[BREAK]]
What about Benghazi? In retrospect, I suspect that the intense focus on Benghazi hurt Romney more than Obama. I suspect that most voters quickly recognized Benghazi for the Republican pseudo-scandal it always was, and received it at roughly the same wavelength as Donald Trump demanding a birth certificate. The prospect of a hammer blow to bring down the incumbent enemy may have thrilled the base, but the very fact of its identification with Fox News and the right wing bubble limited its ability to travel farther. So did the fact that it fairly clearly was not a "scandal" of any significance. Yes, the tragic deaths revealed serious, relatively low-level, issues with inter-agency coordination and communication, and more major issues about intelligence and the changing nature of al Qaeda’s strategy and organization. But it was never the scandal which Republicans so desperately wanted it to be, nor Libya the failure so many believe it to be. Hopefully the real issues can now be addressed outside of the partisan frenzy.
At the same time, by sucking up an unbelieavable amount of the air in the foreign policy debate, Benghazi crowded out a much more serious debate which might have taken place about Syria, Egypt, and the Arab spring. Now, I believe that Obama has done a very good job in responding to the major developments in the Middle East over the last few years — a case I’ve made before and will make again. But there could have been a serious, difficult argument about the costs of Egypt’s transition, the merits of democracy against stability, the implications of rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements, the inconsistency toward Bahrain and the Gulf, the sustainability of a drone-based counter-terrorism strategy, the horrific stalemate in Syria, the long-deceased Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or even war with Iran. The Obama campaign was ready for those arguments (I offered some unpaid advice to the campaign on such issues, for what it was worth, though they hardly needed it). But instead we got little more from Romney than vapid paeans to American leadership and complaints about apology tours. Again, perhaps now we can have that debate — and, given their own deep internal differences over whether, say, their support for democracy outweighs their fear of Islamism, Republicans might take the lead in sorting out their own ideas on these difficult issues.
What about the new Obama administration? Obama’s caution and pragmatism in the face of regional turmoil, along with his real commitments to helping with democratic transitions, finding a path to Israeli-Palestinian peace, engaging moderate Islamists and fighting al Qaeda, are unlikely to change. His team clearly believes, correctly in my view, that the emerging Arab world neither wants nor needs the American rhetorical claims to leadership for which so many American pundits seem to yearn. Nor does he (or the country) have any interest in risky new military adventures. Here are a few places his second administration might usefully push:
– Syria: There’s no quick solution for Syria’s ever worsening conflict, including military ones. The new administration should not, and I expect will not, contemplate any kind of military intervention, but something more needs to be done to block the Syrian regime’s use of air power. It needs to continue its renewed efforts to build a more effective Syrian political opposition, to try to broker a political transition, and failing that to mobilize international consensus for war crimes prosecutions of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
– Iran: With military action in the background but not imminent, and sanctions taking a real political and economic toll inside of Iran, now seems to be the right time to begin a serious effort at real talks with Iran over its nuclear program — and to be prepared to take yes for an answer.
– Israel and the Palestinians: The new administration should try to take advantage of the reorientation of Hamas toward Qatar, and work with Egypt to make a serious push to finally reconstitute a representative and legitimate Palestinian negotiating partner. It should also do what it can to encourage the renewal of a peace camp in the upcoming Israeli election. Those two steps would at least set the stage for a possible return to peace talks, though I don’t think anyone’s optimistic.
– The Arab transitions: The administration has done a much better job than credited on Egypt and the other Arab transitions. It needs to continue that engagement behind the scenes with all actors, from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood to liberals and beyond, to try to keep the endlessly rocky transition on track. It needs to stay engaged with Libya, which is not yet even close to the failure portrayed in the media. But it also needs to be much more direct and forthright in pushing friendly regimes — especially Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan — to enact serious reforms before their political crises spiral out of control.
– Al Qaeda: While al Qaeda is far weaker than it was four years ago, its new adaptations and franchise strategies will require some rethinking. The implications for al Qaeda and for the United States of the rise of Islamist governments and movements, and the intense battles between Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi trends, will require careful new thinking. Paradigms which made sense a few years ago may no longer have as much traction. And there will have to be a serious reckoning with the drone program, both legally and strategically.
The pages of Foreign Policy and the Middle East Channel will no doubt be filled with advice for the second term in the coming days on these and other issues. But for today, a heartfelt congratulations to Barack Obama. He has got his four more years. Let’s hope he does something with them.