01/25/2013 02:45 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Developments in the Middle East May Drive Obama to Get Implicated

The main concern from the United States to China, as well as to Russia, Europe, the Arab region and the Middle East, to Africa, South America and all parts of the world, remains the same: Most individuals seek after employment, a decent life and safety and stability. They seek after a day in which the corruption that surrounds them would diminish, one in which the deeply rooted tendency for authoritarianism, and the monopoly of power and of decision-making would be curtailed. But discussions at the World Economic Forum rarely focus on such basics, because the challenges that are supposed to be examined by leaders in all sectors usually fall under the category of major strategies and global decision-making. This year, the atmosphere in Davos has been dominated by the need to introduce optimism and trust in the dynamism, which Chairman of the forum Professor Klaus Schwab sought to be characterized by perseverance, resilience, adaptability, and the ability to overcome difficulties and pessimism. This is perhaps why the forum's organizers have tried to direct attention away from the tragedies unfolding in Syria and Mali, in order to focus on the major challenges that face the countries of the world on the long run, from Russia to China, to the United States, Europe, and the Middle East and beyond. This has been a useful exercise at the forum's sessions and debates in the Alps. Nevertheless, such tragedies could not be escaped, and pessimism remained prevalent, particularly when discussing the Arab region. In spite of this, talks in Davos have driven political players as well as major intellectuals to another level of discussion - one that transcends today's developments and delves into the significance of events on the long run, at both the regional and international levels. This has led to putting forward ideas that differed from the usual restatements and opened up new perspectives for addressing the various events that have occurred since change came to the Arab region, as well as those that could occur in the era of withdrawal from leadership, in particular within the two major powers most qualified for global leadership - the United States and China.

Russia, which the World Economic Forum had sought to make the star of Davos 2013, received a blow which began with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev addressing the forum. For one thing, the forum had prepared a study of the negative scenarios that might face the future of Russia, and a poll had been conducted during the opening session about what the main and prime threat that could prevent Russia from progressing in the coming years is. The results revealed that nearly 80 percent affirmed that what Russia was lacking was good governance, and that the utmost priority in its policy should be combating corruption, promoting good governance and introducing radical reform. Medvedev reacted in a typically Russian/Putinist manner - casting aside those results that warned that his government would be facing a revolution from the middle class if he and his President, Vladimir Putin, were to continue to ignore the dire need for reform. This form of denial is a widespread ailment in many developing nations that refuse to admit to what is obstructing their path to growth and progress. Putin's Russia does not just consider itself to be a major power, but a superpower. Indeed, it behaves on such a basis by leaping over, denying and ignoring the dire need for reform and democracy which stands as a major obstacle facing its future.

What Vladimir Putin and his apprentice Dmitry Medvedev are wagering on is the reduced desire or ability to lead on the part of others, in particular the two major powers that are the United States and China. US President Barack Obama made clear during his first term that he had no desire to fight for the role of leadership played by the United States, especially in zones of conflict and in particular in the Middle East - and that he was not opposed to the notion of partnership in leadership. Putin has found a multifold opportunity for him in the Arab region, to which has spread Barack Obama's tendency towards withdrawal and isolationism in order to avoid getting implicated in what could lead Americans to pay the price in the form of troops and funds. Accompanying such "Obamism" has been willingness on the part of China's leaders to handover leadership on Middle East issues - and in particular the issues of Syria and Iran - to Russia, in a manner that resembles giving Russia power of attorney to lead.

Russia's mistakes in interpreting those facts are not limited to its attracting the enmity of the Arab region as well as of extremist Jihadists, but also include mistakes in terms of its strategic analysis of the developments of the relationship between the United States and China, or of the latent competition over global leadership between the two giants. One thinker seasoned in those matters said during a closed session that the so-called "pivot to Asia", i.e. the shift in interest towards East Asia, signifies that the United States has decided to confront China on its home soil. Such a confrontation may seem, on the surface, to be restricted to economic competition and to garnering support for and loyalty to America among the countries neighboring China. Yet in its depth, according to that same seasoned thinker, such a strategic confrontation and competition over supremacy will require at the end of the day the opposite of what is the cornerstone of Obamist policy - i.e. gathering the United States' massive military capabilities and being prepared to use them if the need arises.

In this equation between the two real giants, Russia seems like a dwarfed giant and one to be taken lightly at the end of the day, whether on the part of the United States or China. It is getting itself implicated in the Middle East under the illusion that it is making history, while history is striking it out of the equation of the major powers that are handing leadership over to it or are hinting at their isolationism and abandonment of leadership. The arena for these important developments in the relationship between the United States, China and Russia is Syria in particular, where the Islamic Republic of Iran is waging a battle for survival, and where it in turn believes that it alone holds the downwards ladder or the "ladder for climbing downwards", not just for Syria's leadership, but also for that of Russia.

At the immediate level, efforts are currently being exerted at the United Nations - and at some of the meetings and talks in Davos - to work on a formula to emerge from the present situation in Syria that would provide a "face-saving" formula for both Russia's and Syria's leaderships, so as to make it possible to save American leadership from getting implicated and being held to account for its negligence and for adopting erosion and attrition as a policy. The second Obama Administration wishes to stop adopting the "shaming" of Russia's policies as a policy, and is looking for ways to stop embarrassing Russia and to replace this with some form of partnership. Moscow's hang-up remains its desire not to appear to be abandoning its friend in Damascus, President Bashar Al-Assad, and it is willing to cooperate if such a hang-up were to be resolved. Thus, talk is now revolving around the possibility and the means of neutralizing the "Assad hang-up" in the first round of political solutions.

Some are suggesting setting aside the issue of Assad, in the sense of not starting from the precondition that he should have no role to play in the process of political transition or that he should step down. Those who are of this opinion say that the approach of "hypotheticals" could be useful in order to emerge from the vicious circle of seeking after a political solution, and in order to focus on real democratic transformation that would preserve the unity of Syria, instead of allowing it to descend into fragmentation and disintegration. An essential part of the hypothetical approach is that Bashar Al-Assad will not remain President at the end of the day, after the transitional government assumes its functions and a new constitution is reached that would place a time-limit on presidential terms - which would be followed by elections that would truly be monitored. This opinion has been finding its way to the international efforts being exerted at the United Nations, and could perhaps become part of what is being referred to as "Geneva+", which refers to the agreement that had been reached between the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France last summer - before becoming trapped in a vicious circle as a result of differences in interpretation, specifically between Russia and the Western powers.

The fate of this opinion is contingent not just upon what the Syrian opposition might accept but also on whether the second Obama Administration would be ready for it. Russia is trying to evade the predicament and the dead end it has brought itself into, and is hoping that the second Obama Administration will provide it with the ladder for climbing downwards. President Obama does not mind distancing himself from getting implicated, and seems determined to avoid getting dragged into shaping foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. But his shift towards East Asia represents the American response to the rise of China, and this will force him to become engaged in foreign policy. Developments in the Middle East may well drag him "against his will" to such engagement, no matter how much he tries to avoid slipping into the region's thorny problems. Many Americans concerned with shaping American policy do not want to get implicated in another failure, and this is why they are advising Obama to avoid addressing the Palestinian-Israeli issue, at least at the start of his second administration. Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague wants the opposite, and is driving Obama to take the initiative of seriously discussing a radical solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

There is great division over the options available to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, after having obtained a non-member seat for Palestine at the UN - between those who are encouraging him to head to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to sue Israel, especially for its settlement-building policy and for continued occupation as a war crime; and those who are threatening him with bitter punishment and with decapitating or strangling the Palestinian Authority by completely blocking American aid if Abbas were to have the audacity to take such a step. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the issue of Syria are not alone at the forefront of events that might drag the second Obama Administration into getting implicated. The countries of the Arab Spring, as they are referred to, might also bring the second Obama Administration to slip into their own predicaments, from Egypt to Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Former Governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia Mustapha Nabli, who has returned to Davos, knowing that he had come to Davos two years ago with the intoxication of change, said this time: "We were dreaming with our feet in the sky. Now we are still dreaming, but we are dreaming with our feet on the ground". He said that the battle was ongoing between reality and expectations, and that disagreement persisted on core fundamentals, such as the nature of the constitution and the direction to take forward. He pointed to the fact that "violence in politics" becomes inflamed when coupled with imposing political ideologies, be they religious or secular. These are fateful battles, and the transitional phase in the Arab region is a complicated one, both in terms of its local aspect and in terms of drawing others towards it.

Introducing optimism during such a phase is very difficult, but the Davos slogan is no mere novelty. Rather, it is a serious call to put a stop to pessimism and to replace it with dynamism supported by perseverance and the ability to head towards real change connected to the future.