02/08/2013 04:09 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

The Reduced Role of the United States Worries its Allies

It is well known that having an overt part and a covert part in U.S. foreign policy is not a new phenomenon. Rather, both represent longstanding traditions and a cornerstone of the United States' long-term strategy. Each administration leaves its mark in terms of the relationship between the two poles, and in term of its identity as one that is "isolationist", "interventionist" or a mixture of the two. The second Obama administration has its own vision, which could be described as modern covert intervention, without the need for naval fleets and U.S. troops, which are replaced by advanced technology and instruments such as unmanned drones and cyber warfare. This is why we are witnessing what is being perceived as a reduction of traditional American regional roles and an apparent strategic pivot from the Middle East to East Asia. This is a source of concern for the Arab Gulf states, which have been the United States' partners, nay allies, for decades, in addition to their concern over the obscurity surrounding President Barack Obama's policy within the framework of the regional struggle over the balance of power, in which Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and the Arab Gulf states are competing and positioning themselves while keeping an eye on Washington. Instead of the policies of these countries being gripped by fear and concern regarding the reduced role of the United States under Obama, such a regression represents a useful opportunity for the leaderships of the Arab countries concerned to return to the strategic policy-drawing board, so as to truly be active in the region, instead of falling into the vicious circle of importing their security from the United States, or wavering to the tune of the relationship between the United States and Iran, or the relationship between Turkey and the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO). Indeed, the Arab region is going through the most important and most dangerous transitional phase today, one that will last for years and will be fateful in every sense of the word, because its battles will be waged locally and regionally, and the role of the United States in it will be covert and not central.

President Barack Obama will soon be giving the traditional speech known as the State of the Union address, in which he will be listing the domestic and foreign priorities of the ruling administration. Clearly, the priority will be given to domestic matters that concern the situation of Americans as individuals, matters which are connected to not just local policy, but also the role played by the United States in the world. Americans, as individuals, prefer withdrawal and retreat to engaging in the world's problems, and that is what the US President is providing, at least in appearance. What the first Obama administration had devoted itself to was "regaining" or "restoring" American power and influence in the world the "Obamist" way: through reduction, not the expansion and intervention which had characterized the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and which had upset the popular majority, but only after it was too late and not while the usefulness of intervening was being discussed. The Obama administration also devoted itself to investing in rising powers, such as China, India and Brazil; took steps towards having good relations with important major powers, such as China; avoided serious confrontation with Russia, despite core disagreements and "veto wars" at the Security Council over Syria; and stressed the importance of withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking to close the curtains on the "interventionist" wars that characterized the Bush administration.

As per the expression used by one of the major pillars of national policy-making in both the previous and the current administration, "we have restored our foundation". Today as well, during the president's second term, the Obama administration will have priorities, some of them at the core of continuity and others different in appearance. The administration will continue to focus on economic healing, on increasing the country's ability to export and on expanding its world trade agenda in particular, by taking initiatives with countries of the European Union, such as to lead to economic complementarity rather than just a military relationship through the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO). Among the new and novel priorities is that of seeking to make of the United States the largest oil exporter in the world by the year 2020, which means - as per the thinking of American officials - that there will be new job opportunities for more than half a million Americans. This is alongside the kind of influence the United States would have on oil markets, and the impact of this - for example - on the fate of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the most prominent members of which are Arab countries. In other words, the oil center of gravity will shift from the Middle East to the United States to East Asia. However, this will not represent complete American withdrawal from the major oil-rich zones in the Middle East, because these will remain a source of oil for emerging nations, particularly China, which occupies the position of the prime competitor of the United States.

In terms of geopolitics, the ability of the United States to produce such a tremendous amount of oil and to export natural gas will have a profound impact on US policy towards its friends as well as its enemies. Thus, for instance, the United States will be able to impose sanctions on Iran that strike at the core of the oil equation without being concerned about who would compensate for the lack of Iranian oil that would result from its sanctions. What will remain constant in the relationship of the United States to the Middle East will be its alliance with Israel, and this represents part of the considerations that have made the US President decide to make Israel the first stop of his visit to the region in his second term. This is while bearing in mind that he did not visit it during his first term, and that his first visit then had been to Turkey and Egypt, within the framework of establishing a connection with moderate Islam in order to fend off and contain Muslim extremism.

Things are different today, as President Obama's visit to Israel will be aimed at restoring their relationship, which had become tense during his first term, as a result of the priority given by the first term President to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the two-state solution. The Palestinian issue that will be addressed during his next visit may not be that of achieving the two-state solution, but rather that of containing the new means held by the Palestinians as a result of Palestine obtaining non-member observer status at the United Nations. Such means include joining agencies affiliated with the United Nations as a member state, which could lead the US Congress to cut funding for such UN agencies, as took place with UNESCO. What both Israel and the United States also fear is the State of Palestine joining the Rome Statute, which would allow it to head to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take action against the Israeli occupation and settlements, as "war crimes" against the Palestinians.

This is why President Obama's visit to Israel and to Ramallah, where he will be meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, will be one of "preemption", rather than one of "restoration" or "containment". The reason for this is that the Palestinians turning as a state to UN agencies or to the ICC would represent a double-edged sword - one edge harming the Palestinian Authority, in the form of American funding being cut by a decision from Congress; and the other harming the United States, because it could be forced to cut its funding to UN agencies, which would also make it Israel's accomplice in the face of international law.

How will the Palestinian Authority respond to such pressures, knowing that not heading to the ICC to counter continued Israeli occupation would do away with the two-state solution? That is the question to which the answer will be a fateful one. What will the Palestinian Authority ask of the US President in return? And what will it ask of the United Nations and its agencies? These are important questions for the fate of the Palestinian issue and for the fate of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "Preemption" will not be the US President's policy during his second term with the Palestinian Authority alone, as "preempting" Iran - during his visit to Israel -becoming a nuclear power will form a basis for his talks there. Indeed, Obama pledged during his electoral campaign that American policy would no longer be one of "containing" Iran, but rather of "preventing" it from obtaining military nuclear capabilities.

Major actors in the US administration are of the opinion that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran has not seriously taken the decision to head to the negotiations table to discuss the nuclear issue or the regional role which Iran plays and seeks to obtain American recognition of. IBetween the role Iran plays in Yemen, its support for the regime in Damascus, and its direct and indirect involvement in terrorist attacks, one such senior official considers Tehran not to be serious about putting a stop to its nuclear ambitions and to its role in the region. He also considers it inevitable for Iran to collapse economically due to the sanctions and embargo imposed by the United States and its allies. To be sure, Iran's oil exports have now been cut down by half, its unemployment rate is soaring, its national currency is collapsing, and Tehran does not have the ability to deal in hard currency - and those are the means which the new administration will continue to make use of, alongside exhausting Iran in Syria, so that it may become "its own Vietnam". The administration is convinced that the regime in Damascus can only be fated to collapse as well. In Syria, the Obama administration seems to be moving forward with the policy of dual exhaustion, not just between the regime and armed extremist opposition groups, but also between Iran and al-Qaeda splinter groups.

The Obama administration, as one of its senior leading figures has made it clear, feels that "we are in an armed conflict against al-Qaeda and its affiliates". This battle is not taking place in Syria alone, but is rather becoming inflamed primarily in North Africa. In such a battle, the main feature of Obama's policy will be modern "covert intervention", not overt public partnership. This battle represents an essential pillar of the foreign considerations of the Obama administration's second term - making use of advanced technological tools, from unmanned drones to the instruments of cyber warfare and of traditional and modern intelligence. Thus, the kind of direct intervention engaged in by France in Mali will be avoided by the United States in the various parts of the world in which it is waging its covert secret wars, accompanied by what is referred to as the "light footprint" in overt public policy.

What actors on the Arab scene, which is going through a fateful transitional phase, should realize is that the wars taking place among Muslims are their own wars - whether they are taking place between Sunnis and Shiites or between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups. Of course, there are external roles being played, but such roles only grow in proportion to the local willingness to accept and implement them. Thus, what is happening today between the Islamists in power and the secularists and modernists is a struggle over the constitution, personal freedoms and civil rights.

The assassination in Tunisia of Chokri Belaïd, human rights advocate, and member of the opposition to the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, represents a mark of shame for the Islamists upon their rise to power, a rise which has been accompanied by various forms of monopoly and exclusion of modernists and secularists. The West could be blamed for wanting to embrace the rise of Islamists to power merely as the result of elections that were rushed into. Yet the fate of the region will not be determined solely by decisions and mistakes made by the West or by the United States. Rather, it represents a matter of local responsibility.

The same applies to the fate of the Arab region, and specifically the Arab Gulf, in the wake of reduced American interest and a reduced American role in ensuring its security or in entering as a party to the balance of power between the Gulf and Iran. This represents an opportunity to shape an alternative to reliance, to effectively contribute to building the future, and to seriously invest in this fateful transitional phase.