The American Elections: An Opportunity to Reshuffle the Cards

11/02/2012 03:04 pm 15:04:02 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Dubai - No miracle will occur on the day that follows Election Day in the United States next week, but world leaders will go to the strategic drawing board with the next President in mind. Hurricane Sandy has improved President Barack Obama's odds for reelection, and provided him with a golden opportunity to show leadership and prove his ability to confront challenges. This will no doubt revitalize his campaign, which he had suspended because of the super storm. This so-called "October surprise" came at the expense of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, whose campaign had been hounded by stormy weather in Tampa during the Republican National Convention (RNC), only to be chased by hurricane Sandy later. This has bogged him down, and he has been unable to compete with President Obama during this natural disaster. Until the votes are counted, there will be a lot of speculation over the policies of both candidates. But once the results are out, something is bound to happen, as both major and minor powers will want to have a special relationship with the man in charge of running the United States, and their perspective will be affected after the election ends. Mitt Romney, should he win, will be of a different breed as president, and getting acquainted with him and with the kind of leadership he would exercise will take some time, perhaps lasting until a few months after his inauguration in January. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is of a known breed, as it is understood. Yet if he wins, the "second term" dynamic will come into play, potentially impacting the kind of decisions he will make. To be sure, the man residing in the White House during a second term becomes relatively free of the electoral restrictions that bound him during his first. This means that there is a possibility that unknown aspects of the President's personality would emerge, with him taking new unprecedented initiatives, and establishing a new administration in which the actors may have different identities in many, although not all, cases.

Despite the conviction of the majority in the world that the United States, as a superpower, has a long-term strategic policy that goes beyond the person occupying the post of President for four years, a policy defined by the establishment, the personality of the President and the agenda of those around him have played crucial roles in many parts of the world. This is why everyone on the international scene is keeping a close eye on the election. China is perhaps one of the top priorities, in view of the sheer importance of the relationship between the two major powers at different levels, and the strategic rivalry between them in the decades to come. Mitt Romney has made it clear that he would not back down before China's ambitions or its "civilian hostility". The Republican candidate is thus not the preferred choice for China's leadership, especially after the New York Times published information about massive corruption among Chinese leaders, including corruption allegations against Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his family involving amounts in the billions of dollars.

Barack Obama has tried to restore balance with China. Yet at the same time, his administration continued to strengthen American military presence in China's backyard. True, the relationship between the two countries at the direct bilateral level cannot be defined as one of Cold War. But at the level of regional issues and China's alliance with Russia, a climate reminiscent of the Cold War indeed permeates Sino-American relations. China hides behind its conduct, its secrets and its deliberate silence, yet the fierceness of its competition against the United States - sometimes with a great deal of antagonism - makes the strategic relationship between the two countries both a highly sensitive and highly important matter. The issue of bilateral relations between the two is a massive and complex one, involving considerable contradictions on the one hand, and essential understandings on the other. Ultimately, China's leadership is hoping for Barack Obama to remain in the Oval Office, and to carry on the same policies he has been following, which are characterized by a scaled-back role for the United States on the international scene, taking on a form of isolationism which the Chinese leadership welcomes. Yet his second term in office will not be a carbon copy of the first, and in fact there will be repercussions for the decisions that were taken during the first term. Completing the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, will have a direct effect on China and on its ally Russia. They have both benefited greatly from the operations carried out by the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) in Afghanistan against Muslim extremism in order to contain and reduce it within Afghanistan, so as for it not to be exported to the neighborhood of China and Russia.

The United States and NATO have thus paid an exorbitant price in Afghanistan, of which Russia and China have contributed very little while reaping considerable rewards. Today, and after the completion of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Muslim extremism will become Pakistan's problem, just as it will become Russia's problem in Chechnya and in the five Muslim republics that share borders with China and Russia. Thus, China's celebration of American isolationism may well be premature, because such isolationism does not mean withdrawing strategic military presence in the region, but rather ceasing to pay the bill on behalf of China and its Russian ally. This alliance, which was set up between Moscow and Beijing in order to safeguard the interests of both countries and ensure that they benefit together, has been activated diplomatically in the arena of the UN Security Council several times, not in fulfillment of the responsibilities of world peace and security assigned to all permanent members of the Security Council, but rather exclusively for considerations of national interests - which negates in principle the duties of the five permanent members.

A Cold War climate has cast its shadow on the Security Council, because of the Russian-Chinese veto on the issue of Syria, which wielded by Moscow and Beijing not once or twice, but three times in order to protect Bashar Al-Assad's regime and keep him in power, as well as within the framework of the emergence of an axis that includes Russia, China, Iran, Assad's Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The American elections have come to help each party hide behind another. Barack Obama, for one, has found an opportunity in the stances of Russia and China, who have obstructed the Security Council, to reduce the role of the United States while laying the blame on them. Moscow and Beijing thus reached the conclusion that Barack Obama was in need of eluding decisive stances on Syria, and offered him their dual veto. If Barack Obama were to win the presidency - and in fact if Mitt Romney were to win as well - the first thing he will have to do primarily towards Russia is get to know what exactly its President, Vladimir Putin, wants. What does Russia want from the United States in the Middle East, and what are the implications of its strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran? This is an opportunity that should not be missed to reshuffle the cards. Whether Russia made a grave strategic mistake by making use of the third veto and dragged China along with it, whether it truly proved to be powerless to effectively influence Bashar Al-Assad, or whether it has taken the strategic decision to confront the United States and revive the Cold War in a bid to revive its former greatness and pay service to Russian nationalism, there is no escaping that candid conversation with the US President after the elections.

Barack Obama will not be able to elude the issue of Iran, nor that of Syria, but will in fact have to deal with one of them faster than circumstances would allow Mitt Romney to if he were to become President. The leadership in Tehran or in Damascus may welcome Barack Obama's victory, considering him to want neither to confront Iran nor to arm the Syrian opposition. But this was electoral campaign talk. In fact, Tehran has realized the importance of backing down a little on its nuclear ambitions as a containment measure preempting an Israeli or American strike against it, in fulfillment of the unprecedented pledge of a head of state not to allow another state to become a military nuclear power - as Barack Obama has done towards Iran. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Daily Telegraph that Iran had purposely avoided a confrontation by turning a third of its enriched uranium to exclusively peaceful purposes, either in order to elude a military operation against it, or in order to invest in the American elections so as to display its good intentions and gain some time. The Iranian issue, both in the nuclear aspect and in the aspect of its regional role, is a significant matter in the relationship between the United States and Russia - and with it China in view of their strategic alliance. Moscow and Beijing are perhaps no different from Washington in terms of their policy of opposing Tehran's possession of nuclear weapons, but they are not clear about Iran's regional role, whether in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon.

One important question here is this: have these two major powers entered as permanent members of the axis that includes Iran, its Syrian ally and its Lebanese proxy? Or is such a relationship merely a tactical and transient one until their respective bilateral relations with the United States and NATO, as well as with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have been sorted out? Experts insist that this relationship is one of first class alliance, regardless of escalation and threats. They point to the fact that the history of this relationship has never witnessed any kind of direct confrontation. Indeed, their wars have always been by proxy, and the common denominator between the two sides has been their goal of dwarfing the Arabs in any way possible. What raises questions at this juncture falls in Syria, where the features of the Israeli division over whether Bashar Al-Assad should stay or leave are unclear, whereas Tehran's stance is perfectly clear as an ally of the regime in Damascus, considering it to represent the last fateful link for Iran's nuclear role and its ambitions of hegemony.

After the American presidential elections, there will be no escaping for all players to return to the strategy-drawing board, first to ask each other a basic question: what do you want, and what are the prospects of reaching a grand bargain? If stances were to prove radically distant from each other, and if it appears that Vladimir Putin is willing to dispense with Barack Obama in order to cling to Bashar Al-Assad, the American President who will be residing in the White House for the next four years must decide whether he will bow to the wishes of isolationism and bury his head in the sand until the Syrian regime decays and collapses over the dead bodies of its people, or whether he will take the initiative and inform both Putin and Assad of the determination of a second term President. In other words, he must make clear to himself and to others the elements of the grand bargain and its details. He must also shed off the impression he has left others that he does not dare to take the initiative. Indeed, waiting for decay is no policy, even if it has been used as a means to avoid engagement during the presidential campaign. Hiding behind one's finger is no policy either, even if it is what everyone has resorted to in order to avoid challenges.

The countries of the GCC, despite their division, will be forced to confront the question there is no escape from asking Russia, and also China, after the American election: what do you want? If Vladimir Putin's answer is that his alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad is an irreversible strategic decision, then they will have to closely reexamine the details of the strategic discussion taking place between Russia and the six GCC countries. It would be unacceptable to continue pretending that everything is alright, when strategic choices in a direction such as this have become clear.

Asking the question "what do you want?" should also be the headline for candid discussion with the American President for the coming four years. Indeed, the end of the American election represents an opportunity to return to the strategy-drawing board. This would be useful because buying lost time too cannot be a permanent policy.