At last, it seems that reason and commonsense have prevailed. According to the latest projections, Obama has been reelected for a second term. It was far from being a done deal though. Romney had made a spectacular come-back during the last weeks of the campaign. Forget about the disastrous outcome of 8 years of Republican administration! As astonishing as it may seem for liberals (or moderate conservatives like myself), the same political party that had started the Iraq war, damaged the image of the US abroad as well as the American economy on a massive scale could have made its way back to the White House.
Now, what does Obama’s reelection mean in terms of foreign policy? Obama was elected in 2008 on the idea that he would break radically with the legacy of the Bush administration. Cynically however, one could argue that Obama has been a good Republican President, simply more efficient in terms of national security and counter-terrorism than his predecessor.
Obama has withdrawn US troops from Iraq and refocused the attention on Afghanistan. He has changed the approach to counter-terrorism, with a shift from a cold-war approach, which had proved a failure, to one that emphasizes intelligence gathering and special operations. Finally, he has initiated a partial US disengagement from the Middle-East and a refocusing on Asia, where China is raising.
The single most important cause of disappointment with Obama, after the Cairo discourse (hardly an apology discourse), has been his failure to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Still a US president preparing for his reelection could hardly antagonize the powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the US. One may wonder though what would have happened if the Arab Spring had taken place during a Republican Administration. By definition, we will never know but the question is worth asking.
More generally, the disappointment with Obama’s Foreign Policy may illustrate the simple fact that charismatic leader no longer makes history (if it was ever the case). Structural and historical constrains remain. At the same time, the Bush administration had brought us a sober reminder that uncharismatic or poor leader can still cause disaster.
Foreign Policy was not at the center of the election but at this level, Americans had really to choose between two visions of the world. Paradoxically, Romney’s approach was more idealistic, with a largely Manichean understanding of the world and the role of the US. Very significantly in the last debate, Romney argued that the US had no reason to apologize because they have always been on the side of freedom. Historians may disagree. Although Obama himself claimed in the same debate that the US was still“the one indispensable nation”, he remains fundamentally a realist. He is also aware of the fact that the nature of power is changing within an international system that is becoming more and more multipolar and in which the West as a whole is only one actor among many. This awareness has translated into a foreign policy that emphasizes multilateralism, coalition building and in some areas “soft power”.
With 4 more years to go and no concern for his reelection, Obama has now his hands relatively free in foreign policy. One should certainly not anticipate a radical change in the immediate future. Obama’s approach to the Syrian war for instance will probably remain the same, especially as the conflict is turning more and more sectarian.
If Obama really wants to be a “transformative president” – and I do believe that he has this potential – he has however to refocus on the Israli-Palestian conflict and first and foremost to put pressure on Israel. This conflict remains the key, both at the geopolitical and symbolic levels, of many problems of the Middle-East. Given the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, it is commonsensical to say that the first move has to come from Israel, not from Palestinians that have nothing left to bargain, expect their own right to exist.
Obama was probably sincere when he was claiming, throughout the campaign, that he was a true friend of Israel and that he was strongly concerned with Israel’s national security (even if it means a war with Iran). Obama may prove disappointing for those who see Israel, the only nuclear State in the region, as dangerously moving toward an apartheid regime, a solution detrimental to the Palestinians but also to Israeli democratic institutions on the long term. At the same time, a true friend can be tough for your own good. Israel has reasons to be worried for its security after the Arab Spring but the new environment also creates unprecedented opportunities for a peace agreement. Israel can no longer claim, in the face of the world, to be the only democracy in the region and the coming in office of democratically elected Islamist governments in Egypt and maybe tomorrow Syria will change the balance of power in the whole region, creating concrete incentives for Israel to return to the negotiation table. Obama has basically 4 years to capitalize on this tectonic change and to make history … as well as his own place in history.