Obama’s Choice

‘Obama must take action against Iran if he doesn’t want to be perceived as a lame-duck president’

Barack Obama’s drubbing in the mid-terms will have implications for his domestic and foreign policies. World leaders now realise that Obama could be a lame-duck president, which means that they can ignore his efforts to put pressure on recalcitrant allies (Israel), encourage sceptical friends (more European Nato troops in Afghanistan) and deter enemies (Iran, Syria and the other usual suspects).

There is much to suggest that Middle East capitals will read Obama this way — but they will do so at their peril. First, the president has the power to do what he likes to pursue foreign policy. He does not need Congress to deliver peace in the Middle East though he does need it to launch a major war (yet he can do without it if he has to respond to provocation). The new Congress will not deny him support for a tough course of action.

The stalemate in the Middle East peace process is largely the by-product of Obama’s misreading of the regional map, a misreading made stronger by the impression that his vast home majority gave him the authority to bully Israel. He may now find it harder to pressure Binyamin Netanyahu on settlements. The new Congress will be less sympathetic to Obama’s lenience towards Palestinian recalcitrance. 

The Israeli PM knows that Obama’s political future hangs in the balance. Anyway, the conditions to jump-start the process are simply non-existent. Still, no Israeli leader would wish to lose an American president at a time when Israel might need Washington most to confront Iran. Besides, the president might, after all, still be re-elected in two years’ time. There is some wiggle room there for Obama, but not much, especially because his prestige and his chances for a second term cannot afford another failure. Expect little, therefore, on this front.

Meanwhile, the US is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Iraq. America’s enemies cannot have been overly impressed from the start with the president’s warrior qualities. He could choose to pre-empt Iraq’s likely descent into chaos after the US departure by pursuing a tougher course, delaying troop withdrawal and seeking open confrontation with Iran. But that would require a policy U-turn that would alienate his base and not necessarily yield the kind of spectacular results needed to turn the choice between failure and stalemate into one between progress and triumph.

Afghanistan is the one area where the president has shown an inclination to taste more blood than even his predecessor. Yet Afghanistan, the war Obama chose to fight and the terrain where he is prepared to unleash even more lethal force without much concern for his liberal credentials, is the place that can deliver most disappointments and where the only change of course possible — other than getting more boots on the ground — is one that would seal his fate as a one-term president like Jimmy Carter. Obama can stay the course there only if foreign policy is going to be a source of success — dumping President Hamid Karzai or seeking accommodation with the Taliban are not going to endear him to the American public or make the world a safer place.

That leaves Iran.

This president started his term speaking in hopeful terms of engagement and a new era in US-Iranian relations. He sought a new beginning and was genuine — if perhaps naive — in his belief that Iran would be moved by his gentler, kinder tone. He has tried the route of engagement and turned it into a strong argument with America’s allies for tougher sanctions against Iran. 

The real question now is, can this president do what, at least on the Upper West Side, at UN headquarters and across Western Europe, appears unthinkable, unfathomable and unacceptable? Could Obama decide, in the next 12-18 months, that a massive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could serve many of his foreign policy goals that have eluded him so far and, in the process, reverse his fortunes?

I would not put it past him. This is a president, after all, who made the issue of global nuclear disarmament a top priority and an issue very close to his heart. Seeing Iran go nuclear on his watch and, as a consequence, sweep away the whole notion of a world rid of nuclear weapons, would seal his fate as a one-term president and his legacy forever as an appeaser.

The Middle East will be watching him closely in the next few months. Given the way that political weakness is interpreted in that region, one can expect some provocation before long. Like all challenges predicated on the false assumption that America is in decline, they may just reawaken the sleeping giant.

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