11/14/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Grasping Nettles

With the election now over, President Barack Obama will be forced to turn his attention back to the prickly and unpredictable foreign policy challenge posed by the Middle East.

Mr Obama's election victory in November 2008 was viewed optimistically by some as a watershed moment for U.S. ties with the Middle East -- an assessment only reinforced by his Cairo speech in June 2009, in which he called for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world". However, the honeymoon proved short-lived. Mr. Obama's inability to differentiate himself from his predecessors -- notably over the thorny issue of Israel -- has seen resentment of the U.S. rise once more: a YouGov poll in September found people in the region distrusting the U.S. by a margin of two to one over those with a favorable view. Despite these headwinds, however, the second term Obama administration has little choice but to step up its engagement in the Arab world.

Speak softly...

In stark contrast to his predecessor, Mr. Obama has preferred diplomacy and multilateralism, over threats and unilateralism. This distancing from his predecessor was vividly illustrated by the final removal of U.S. troops from Iraqi soil in December 2011, but was equally evident in the U.S.'s backseat role in the military intervention in Libya in 2011 (and its ongoing circumspection over the civil war in Syria). His stance on the revolutions that have punctuated the Arab Spring has been similarly cautious. Although he appeared to appreciate the significance of the event early, and was relatively quick to call for Hosni Mubarak to stand down as Egypt's president, the US's role subsequently has been extremely low key. This is perhaps understandable, however. In reality, any excessive US cheerleading for the pro-democracy movement risked having the unintended consequence of undermining the protesters' legitimacy. Additionally, in the case of the post-revolution states, a financially strapped U.S. administration simply lacks the funds to attempt any sort of "Marshall Plan for the Middle East".

However, the deliberate distancing of the U.S. administration from the revolutions also betrays a failure of courage: at some stage, Mr. Obama (and his next secretary of state) is going to have to make a better fist of persuading a wary U.S. public that an elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government is a far better outcome than the former norm of secular-minded Arab dictators. "Politically risky" or not, shirking meetings with Muslim Brotherhood leaders -- the new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, has met his counterparts in China and Iran, but not yet Mr. Obama -- is not a viable strategy if the U.S. is interested in maintaining a semblance of influence in the region.

... and carry a big stick

The Arab Spring has also had a destabilising impact on the U.S. administration's relations with the oil-rich Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states, which have watched with grave concern the US's willingness to abandon long-standing alliances. Exacerbating these political wobbles, the economic co-dependence between the US and the Gulf Arab peninsula -- founded on oil -- is also steadily being eroded, as U.S. domestic oil output ramps up. Nonetheless, the strategic compact between the U.S. administration and the GCC retains one all-important driver: the U.S.'s continued military pre-eminence, and its commensurate role as the region's military guarantor (and main weapons supplier -- an economic boon that the U.S. administration will be keen to maintain). Indeed, the importance of the US's military umbrella has only grown of late amid Iran's nuclear programme and its recurring threats to close the Strait of Hormuz (a narrow passageway, through which most of the region's oil passes).

Nonetheless, at present Iran should perhaps be viewed as more of a diplomatic opportunity than a military threat. Notably, the ending of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second and final term as president in June 2013 will remove a disruptive player from the Iranian scene, and the elimination of a key hate figure in the U.S. With Mr. Obama also now less sensitive to domestic voters and lobbies, and Iran's economy bending under the weight of sanctions, arguably there is an opportunity to accelerate the on-off nuclear talks presently under way.

A nettle too far?

Arguably even less predictable is how the second Obama administration will approach the perennial challenge of mediating an accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Early on in his presidency, Mr. Obama took a relatively firm line with the Israeli government, including backing Palestinian calls for a freeze on Israeli settlement building; however, with no sign of progress and a worsening political fallout, he soon backed down.

Potentially, unencumbered by the need to plot another term, Mr. Obama may choose once again to make a push for peace. However, it is difficult to be optimistic, for two compelling reasons: first the hardline Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his right-wing coalition allies are expected to win the coming Knesset election, and as such Israeli obstructionism should remain the norm; second, the impracticalities posed by a divided Palestinian polity (with a Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, and a Fatah-led administration in the West Bank) will continue to hinder peace-making. However, by refusing to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian issue head on, Arab goodwill towards Mr. Obama will continue to ebb, undermining the U.S. administration's efforts to rebuild ties with the new governments in the region, and leaving the task of forging a "new beginning" between the U.S. and Muslims to another president.