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Raghida Dergham Headshot

Obama in His Second Term: More Self-Confidence and Freedom

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New York -- President Barack Obama enters his second term with a pledge that will test either the firmness of his resolve or the skillfulness of his elusiveness, namely the Iran pledge, in which he vowed not to allow the Islamic Republic of Iran to become a nuclear state. He did not pledge to carry out a military strike or indeed to take this option off the table, but the way he has governed in his first term indicates that Barack Obama does not want the United States to play direct military roles anywhere.

He may be confident that sanctions will lead to reducing Iran's resolve to acquire a nuclear bomb, but President Obama is doubtless aware of the depth of the role played by Iran in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as of Iran's regional ambitions. This is why the attention will now be focused on whether the US President in his second term will engage in trade-offs or will direct warnings. The issue does not only concern the relationship of the United States with the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the tripartite American-Israeli-Iranian equation, but also includes the fate of Syria and the future of relations with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Moreover, the issue of Iran lies at the core of the relationship between the United States and Russia, and in the depth of the relationship of the Gulf countries with Russia and China.

Perhaps past experiences have taught Barack Obama not to make too many predictions. Indeed, he had inaugurated his first term with the Palestine pledge, and thus placed resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the forefront of his promises. Yet he failed at the test of holding a steadfast stance, falling back in the face of pressures and retreated in the face of setbacks.

The first term President carried along his famous Cairo speech in order to start a new chapter with the Muslim World. The Arab revolutions followed, placing Islamists in power in the name of democracy and elections, without a clear pledge to uphold the democracy of equality and the separation of religion and state, or the democracy of not monopolizing all positions of power.

In spite of this, embracing the Muslim Brotherhood in power and labeling it moderate was characteristic of the Obama Administration's early reactions, on the basis that the Muslim Brotherhood would represent the best safety valve against Muslim extremism - whether it comes from the Salafists or from Al-Qaeda and similar groups. But developments in Syria once again raised the specter of the return of extremist Islamist movements to the forefront, leading to a failure to take measures that would force President Bashar Al-Assad to step down, as President Barack Obama had called for about a year ago. Syria thus entered a vicious circle essentially caused by stalling and procrastination, which resulted in the militarization of the crisis and in extremist movements entering the arena and making use of violence, sometimes in equal measure as the regime.

Now, after American voters gave President Barack Obama a second term, it is only natural for the man occupying the White House for the next four years to change somewhat, as he is certainly much more self-confident and much freer without the restrictions imposed by elections. His priorities are of course economic and domestic in nature, but this does not spare him from having to address international challenges. What awaits him then? And how might he change?

The Palestine pledge by which he began his first term forced Barack Obama to back down and thus made him appear either weak in the face of pressures or ignorant with the rules of the political game to begin with. On the one hand, such retreat made the US President seem powerless, while on the other, it also came at the expense of the Palestinians, who remain subjected to occupation, while Israel continues to build illegal settlements. The timing of the Israeli leadership, whose reinforcement of its settlement-building policy coincided with the end of the presidential elections, was a message to Barack Obama, as if to tell him to back off.

The US President had dared at the beginning of his first term to demand that Israel merely "freeze" settlement-building, and thus the Israeli Prime Minister made the resolve to teach President Obama a lesson, forcing him to back down while pledging to continue to act as he finds it to be in his political or ideological interest. Moreover, the Israeli Prime Minister forced the US President to relinquish a modest demand the latter had considered to fall under American national interests. Thus the peace process went into slumber and the two-state solution, rather than the building of new settlements, was frozen. And after President Obama got Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas implicated in the formula of freezing settlement-building, then gradually backed down on it, Mahmoud Abbas fell into the trap of insisting on the freezing of settlement-building as a condition for resuming negotiations. Negotiations and settlement-building thus entered a vicious circle.

When Mahmoud Abbas made a bid for a seat for the State of Palestine at the United Nations, he found himself in a confrontation with the United States, which mobilized everything it had to prevent the Security Council from allowing such a state to be recognized. It succeeded at this not by making use of its veto power, but by influencing the elected members of the Security Council in order to deny the Palestinians the nine votes necessary to adopt any resolution. The Palestinian President has returned this year to the General Assembly to ask for recognition of a state without full membership in the international organization. And once again, opposition to these efforts and compromises to postpone a final decision on the issue began to be mobilized.

For one thing, the necessary votes are guaranteed at the General Assembly, but Western countries, such as Britain, have nonetheless started a "bad timing" campaign, on the basis that it would not be in the interest of the Palestinians to embarrass the United States immediately after the elections and force it to wage a campaign against those efforts. British diplomacy has thus advised the US Administration to make some gesture towards the Palestinian Authority, so as to save face and allow it to take the decision to postpone. Most likely the formula will be for the US President to invite the Palestinian President to visit Washington as soon as possible after the new Administration assumes its functions. Yet it is not known whether President Obama will be seeking more than just the visit itself, and realize that developments on the Palestinian scene itself require him to take stances that truly support the Palestinian Authority, at a time when Hamas is regaining trust and foreign support by deliberately weakening the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The Emir of Qatar going on an official visit to Gaza has strengthened the standing of the Hamas leadership at the expense of that of the Palestinian Authority, in addition to supplying it with funds and aid. It is true that Qatar's leadership may have sought to perpetuate Hamas's split away from the leadership of Syria, which had supported and adopted it, bearing in mind that the relationship between Qatar and Syria is today at its worst. It is also true that Qatar's support of Hamas would help remove Hamas from the bosom of Iran... Yet there are also those whose view is that Qatar is sponsoring the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the Arab region, and that this is why it has taken such a step. At any rate, such a step weakens the Palestinian Authority, whatever the justifications that negate intentionally doing so.

What is unlikely -- yet not completely excluded -- would be for President Obama to take major steps on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Perhaps deep inside he wishes to revive the negotiations in a creative way that would truly lead to resolving the conflict and reaching the two-state solution. But he burnt his fingers at such an exercise at the start of his first term, and he most likely does not wish to deliberately burn them again at the start of his second. What he will not be able to avoid is not the Palestinian issue, but rather the Iranian issue, particularly in terms of Israel insisting on the United States preventing the Islamic Republic of Iran from obtaining the capabilities to manufacture nuclear weapons. Perhaps Barack Obama has in mind some means of fulfilling the Iran pledge he made, in a precedent of publicly pledging not to allow it to become a nuclear state. This may come about by reviving "Obamist" diplomacy, based on enticing with direct dialogue, pledging not to interfere in internal affairs and accepting for a regional role to be played by Tehran's mullahs. It may be by strengthening sanctions to stifle Iran's ability to move forward with its nuclear program and continue funding direct Iranian intervention in support of the regime in Damascus or of Hezbollah in Lebanon. It may also be by adopting policies that call for dwarfing the ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the regional level by removing the regime loyal to it in Damascus. Obama might also have in mind a bargain that would be based on suspending uranium enrichment in exchange for a special relationship with the United States and a deal to keep the regime in power in Damascus - even if with an agreement for Bashar Al-Assad to leave power.

The issue of Iran is also present in relations with Russia and China, as is the issue of Syria. The margin for maneuvering, the margin for negotiations as well as the margin for discussion between major powers will be affected after the end of the American elections. The connection between the issues of Iran and Syria, and with them the issue of Hezbollah in Lebanon, is clear - as is the central place held by those issues in the relations of the United States with Russia and China. It is also clear that Obama's method of dealing with Tehran over the past four years has not been of any use. Indeed, he has failed to get it to suspend uranium enrichment, as he has failed to get Israel to suspend new settlement-building. What would be unlikely is for the US President to rush to direct a military strike on nuclear sites in Iran. Yet it would also be unlikely for him to be able to completely elude his Iran pledge.

Some kind of reactivation of diplomacy will take place on the issues of Iran and Syria, with a qualitatively different discourse. China has begun a somewhat different discourse on the Syrian issue this week, most likely for two main reasons: first, the fact that Arab Gulf countries are exerting tangible pressures on China to prove how serious the Syrian issue is for them; and second, the realization by the Chinese leadership that it is time for a different discourse with the United States under the leadership of its second term President. Russia still publicly clings to its obstinate stances, but there is talk of it repositioning itself in order to hold a new kind of discourse with the US President for the four years to come.

The issue is to a great extent dependent on President Barack Obama himself. Syria is staring him in the face and Iran is beckoning him. His election as President for a second term imposes on him a choice between remaining on the path of isolationism and shaping a role of leadership for the United States on the international scene. The first Barack Obama chose to lead from behind, but the second Barack Obama may well decide that it is time to lead from the front.