No matter who becomes the next president of the United States, the post-Arab Awakening Middle East is in the process of creating new rules affecting the lone superpower and other great powers. From the US perspective, the changing political order in Egypt has seriously eroded its power and influence in the region. The most important concern affecting Egypt–its continued commitment to the Camp David peace agreement–faces a questionable future. Tunisia–though it did not figure prominently in the past political maneuvers of the United States–has become an important place. Washington is very much hoping that Islamic moderation still prevails in that country. The post-Qaddafi Libya gave a lot of hope to the US policymakers as a country where they could reestablish America’s presence and influence. However, the murder of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans, not only shocked the administration of Barack Obama, but also became a forceful point of contention between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, in the presidential debates. Indeed, the specifics of that tragedy promise to haunt the next administration long after the election is over.
From the US perspective, the most baffling aspect of the Arab Awakening is how to retain its strategic dominance and its related clout in the region. The possibility of retention of any amount of clout has a lot to do with America’s ability to reach a rapprochement with the new Arab leadership in the coming months. But that issue remains cloudy. One of the most serious errors the Obama administration made was that it did not spend any time or energy in resolving the Palestinian question. The fact that the Israeli liberal newspaper, Haaretz, endorsed Barack Obama as a candidate most friendly to Israel does not bode well for his effectiveness in the Arab Middle East, if he succeeds in winning his second term. If Mitt Romney is elected, then the Arab world has little hope that any attempt will be made by Washington to resolve the Palestinian conflict.
Right now, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are not happy with Obama about what they perceive as his timid approach toward Iran. In the meantime, they are placing their bets that the regime of Bishara al-Assad in Syria–which is strongly supported by Iran–becomes history. Along with that potential, they hope that Iran’s clout in the Levant region of the Middle East will also become history. However, they are not considering the possibility that after Bishara Assad, Syria is most likely to become a stomping ground for Islamists and al-Qaida, a potential that has constrained the Obama administration’s desire to provide military assistance to anti-Assad insurgents. Ironically, despite the best efforts of the United States to oust Assad, it is Russia and China that have made that task a prolonged chore, if not an impossibility.
Inside the United States, despite all the highly touted “best” intelligence available, no one has any understanding about what really is evolving in the Arab world, and, equally important, how to deal with it. The third presidential debate between Obama and Romney–which was not expected to be a forum for any degree of sophisticated foreign policy discussion–remained a spitting contest between the two candidates. Obama appeared confident that he had a comprehensive understanding of the world beyond US borders, while Romney became too wrapped up in his criticism of Obama’s alleged failures and Romney’s own unqualified support for Israel.
Despite his self-perceived notion of understanding the complexities of the Arab world, President Obama’s highly touted achievement is the killing of Usama Bin Laden. Regarding his dealing with the rise of al-Qaida in the different regions of the Arab world and in North Africa and the Horn, the United States’ “claim to fame” under Obama is the unleashing of drone warfare to decapitate various affiliates of al-Qaida. How to go beyond that tactic to decisively defeat terrorism finds no answer inside Washington under Obama. If Romney is elected, one can expect nothing but the continuation of Obama’s drone war. Romney had made a public pledge for continuing that option in the last presidential debate.
Looking from the United States, the tsunami for change in the Arab Middle East also promises to create a period of anarchy. The United States is least prepared to deal with such an eventuality. The question of the hour is who in the Arab world is best prepared to handle it?