US presidential elections and foreign policy
The drama of anti-American demonstrations in the Middle East, Pakistan in Asia, North Africa and other parts of the world in the period just prior to the November elections in the United States, is obviously not the best background for President Barack Obama to be bringing his campaign to a climax. The sense of the US being cast, in various parts of the world as a beleaguered nation, will throw minds back to President Jimmy Carter’s unfortunate experience of having to deal with the besieging of the American Embassy and the holding of Americans hostage in Iran in November1979, a year before the elections of 1980.
The current situation must surely be the exact opposite of what President Obama would have wished for. One of his first foreign policy initiatives was to signal to countries of the Middle East in a speech in Cairo, Egypt, in June of 2009, seven months after his election, that he believed that the opportunities for advancement of Middle Eastern regional relations were well in prospect. Certainly that sentiment seemed to have a degree of global acceptance, suggesting that it was widely felt that conditions for peacemaking in the Middle East were ripe, as reflected in the award to Obama, not long afterwards, of the Nobel Peace Prize.
At that time, too, the President seemed to impress the American population with a belief that after the war-weary years of interventionism in Iraq and in Afghanistan, he was in a position to bring American troops back from both those countries in fairly large numbers, reasonably quickly, restoring a situation where the country would have no major external conflictual engagements. But as last fortnight’s events in Afghanistan demonstrated, confidence in the ability of the Afghans to provide minimal protection for remaining American troops, is surely at a low ebb, with the Taliban openly attacking American troops within their barracks, and sentiment increasing that President Karzai’s government is unable to ensure minimum security even there.
In the meantime, President Obama’s apparent victory over al Qaeda, with the discovery and liquidation of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, while applauded by many in the United States and elsewhere, has worsened relations between the United States and Pakistan, its key ally in the war against al Qaeda. There, the overt intervention in the country by the United States, in order to deal with its number one opponent, has created a certain instability in the ruling regime, and a further hesitancy on the part of President Zardari’s government to go all the way with the US in the Afghan war.
It seemed, a year ago, that with the defeat of Gadaffi in Libya, the President had accomplished what he had promised the American electorate during his election campaign. This was, that it was possible to defeat assumed anti-American and anti-Western forces without the massing of large numbers of American troops outside of the country. The NATO alliance, manned by European forces with American technical support, brought victory, installing a relatively unknown grouping of opposition political exiles to power. Success in removing the ailing President of Yemen through a combination of supporting military pressure and diplomacy – another victory for the West, so to speak, will have given Obama confidence that a strategy of manoeuvring against radical forces in far-off countries, might be proving to do the trick of what might be called indirect intervention – an important political achievement in years prior to another presidential election.
But fate has proven otherwise. The President, sometimes now given the credit for inspiring the Arab Spring through his speeches, general diplomatic demeanour towards the Muslim world, and generally acclaimed diplomatic manoeuvring against Iran, has found that the explosion of the Arab Spring has not exempted the United States from the usual hostility and obloquy that other American administrations have been exposed to. It had indeed looked, at first, that an important American diplomatic manoeuvre had been achieved when it seemed that Egypt could have, at least for a cooling-off period, a military government without the long-reigning Mubarak. But the determination of the Muslim Brotherhood has proven that a honeymoon period could not be sustained.
So last week, the Americans found themselves blaming President Morsi of Egypt for permitting the anti-American Islamist riots there, in the face of the events in Libya, as if it were an expectation that a Muslim Brotherhood government would behave like a Mubarak government, and cover all bases for United States interests in Egypt. What has transpired has been a more home-grown set of tactical manoeuvres by Morsi, and the eventual calming of the protesting groups without being made to appear to be following American instructions.
The uncertainty of the situation in the Middle East is now magnified by the uprising against the minority Alawite, Assad regime in Syria, where the United States has not, in the last thirty years or so, ever had much influence. But the situation is more favourable to their interests to the extent that the brunt of the support for the anti-Assad forces has come from Saudi Arabia, a long-standing key American ally, and some small, but rich monarchies able to provide the wherewithal for military support to the Syrian rebels.
In the meantime, an almost Cold War-like scenario plays out at the Security Council with Russia and China refusing to join American diplomacy in what they obviously perceive can evolve as the establishment of an essentially pro-American, pro-Western regime in the Middle East, and a loss of any real diplomatic leverage that they may have gained there over the years.
There are some observers who suggest that current events show the limits of American power in the contemporary era. But though there remains strong sentiment in the United States that America must never be seen to be out-manoeuvred in the wider non-Western, ex-colonial world, there seems no doubt that Obama has removed himself from the kind of knee-jerk military responses to anti-American provocation that still seems to be represented by his opponent Mitt Romney. His diplomacy towards Iran, in spite of sustained Israeli provocation, mimicked at home by Romney, supports this view. Obama will surely be hoping that the Syrian situation at least remains bubbling until the elections are over. For the complex ethno-religious structure of the country gives no confidence that an overthrow of Assad will mean the resumption of peace and order in Syria.