The Obama Administration's Middle Eastern Policy

In Search of a New Strategic Imperative

According to the political scientist Thomas Jäger, a fundamental re-orientation of American policy on the Middle East under President Obama is highly unlikely. The key factor for the USA's activities in the Middle East will be whether American foreign policy receives a new framework for law and order beyond the "War on Terror"

Symbol picture USA and Middle East, featuring Obama (photo: DW)
Many observers are hoping for an improvement in US policy in the Middle East from Barack Obama – but are they right? Thomas Jäger from the University of Cologne does not expect a fundamental change of direction

​​Under President George W. Bush, US foreign policy problems in the Middle East have multiplied, whereas the ability to solve them in the interests of the USA has been drastically reduced. It comes as no surprise, then, that Barack Obama's election as the 44th president of the USA has produced a positive echo in the region.

This reflects expectations in American society that President Obama will make fundamental changes after taking office on 20 January 2009, particularly to Middle Eastern policy. There is little evidence to suggest he will do so – yet basic decisions on the country's new administration have not yet been taken, so that all considerations are subject to one proviso.

That proviso is that it is not clear what guiding idea the Obama administration's foreign policy will adopt. Under President Bush, the official strategic imperative of US policy on the Middle East was to spread democracy and freedom across the entire region.

Many observers of US foreign policy would welcome a move to take individual conflicts out from under this ideological roof in future. Such a step would keep the option of targeted interventions in individual conflicts open.

Obama's "grand narrative" for US foreign policy

American soldiers retrieve a casualty (photo:AP)
"Withdrawal of troops, destabilisation of Iraq and then a new military intervention would spell political disaster for President Obama"

​​ Yet there are two reasons to expect Obama to find his own "grand narrative" for America's foreign policy. Firstly, the American president has a weak institutional role when it comes to domestic policy. Although the foremost tasks are currently located in this sector, sooner or later Obama will seek to gain political stature via international politics. Secondly, Obama's campaigning style showed he was determined to offer voters a "personal story". With the importance of PR for the Obama administration, this key idea on foreign policy will define the presidency, no less.

Central significance of the Iraq war

One central factor in the eyes of US society will be how Barack Obama deals with the Iraq war. During his election campaign, he made not only a political and moral argument out of the issue but also an economic one. If he does not pull out the troops within the next 16 months, he will have to reckon up the costs of the war. And it will place doubt on his credibility.

The Bush administration is currently negotiating a withdrawal from Iraq's cities by 2009 and from rural areas by 2011. For practical reasons, Obama is unlikely to be able to speed this process up. But more dangerous than a delay would be if the situation in Iraq were to destabilise. Withdrawal, destabilisation of Iraq and then a new military intervention would spell political disaster for President Obama.

This risk drastically reduces his options in Iraq. On top of this, elections are scheduled there for 2009, and it is unclear what direction the nationalist election campaign will take. If Iraq does not develop into a politically and economically stable country, and fast – which no one expects at the moment – the Obama administration will have to explain why it still has several tens of thousands of soldiers stationed there. Judging by the current situation, we can expect the war on terrorism to remain the "grand narrative" for this purpose.

Little room for manoeuvre on the nuclear issue

Symbol picture USA and Iran featuring Ahmadinejad and Obama (photo: AP)
"Can we distinguish between peaceful and military use of nuclear power and if so, under which conditions?" The answer to this question will help define the US’s behaviour towards Iran

​​ The challenge in Iran is that the country's nuclear capacity is constantly increasing. The multilateral negotiations have not convinced Teheran to alter its nuclear policy. Bilateral US attempts to end the standoff, which Obama hinted at in his election campaign, could intensify the fear of a unilateral approach among US allies without solving the problem. American diplomacy would have failed all on its own. Diplomatic success is entirely dependent on a decision by the Iranian leadership.

Barack Obama has never ruled out military intervention – and has always pointed out that Israeli security interests are defined in Israel. Ultimately, however, everything hangs on the answers to two questions: can we distinguish between peaceful and military use of nuclear power and if so, under which conditions? And is Teheran prepared to accept these conditions?

Again, the USA has little room for manoeuvre on this issue. If the Obama administration wants to stop Iran playing for time, it will have to clearly define the goals of the six states. And it will have to set out what will happen in the event that Teheran refuses to accept these goals.

Afghanistan: a central front in the battle against terrorism

Barack Obama has already stated he will station more soldiers in Afghanistan, as a central front in the battle against terrorism. General David H. Petraeus is currently drawing up a concept based on the "surge" in Iraq. It is likely that the border region to Pakistan, currently being taken into greater account in the US military strategy, will see even more intensive involvement.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Jäger (photo: private)
Prof. Dr. Thomas Jäger teaches International and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne, Germany

​​ Europe has already realised this will be accompanied by requests for the allied states to raise their troop numbers. The question will be how much of a say the European governments are granted in the decision-making process in return.

However, it remains absolutely unclear how the parallel problems of a war economy and rule by clan structures are to be solved. Unless he determines the political purpose of the war and tables a withdrawal strategy acceptable to the US allies, Afghanistan may become one of Obama's central problems.

Obama may well appoint a special ambassador to deal with the Middle East conflict and take the pressure off his foreign minister. Perhaps the new administration will pay greater attention to Turkey's strategic importance again. The key question, however, is whether Barack Obama will continue to justify the USA's activities in the Middle East through the war on terrorism, or US foreign policy will be given a new framework.

Thomas Jäger

© 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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