US elections and foreign policy

Luca AnceschiLuca Anceschi



This was originally published in The Drum 10 May, 2012. 

Foreign policy is destined to remain at the margins of the speeches through which Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will address the next US presidential campaign, and may only be briefly touched on during the televised debates between the candidates.

While campaigning, the two sides of US politics will concentrate on the domestic arena, as it is to be expected during a severe economic downturn. An inward-looking campaign will prevent us from hearing about an issue worrying many political operators based in Washington: the tangible decline of US influence in the Middle East. This decline is undoubtedly rapid and could soon become irreversible, as the US position in the region continues to be tarnished by a hostile global environment, in which Europe is experiencing trouble and new forces are rising.

The United States is no longer able to systematically influence the choices made in the Middle East. In a time where the political landscape of parts of the Middle East is being reshaped by a wave of popular uprisings, Washington's ability to steer political change in the region appears largely reduced.

When Obama took office, US policy was unpopular in the Arab street, but the United States had a reasonable say in regional politics. At the end of his first mandate, it can be said that US influence has drastically waned (at least in the Mediterranean), while the unpopularity of Washington's policies remained high in much of the region.

The Middle East strategy of the Obama administration - with the notable exception of the problematic evolution experienced by US-Israeli ties in the last four years - has to be assessed through a relatively positive lens. This evaluation finds much of its rationale in the relaxation of the tones underpinning Washington's policies in the region. It is hence a combination of longer term factors and structural circumstances that, to my mind, has led to the decline of US influence in the Middle East.

To begin, president Obama appears to be paying the consequences of questionable earlier policies, especially so far as Washington's ability to recognise viable partners amongst the Arab regimes and, most importantly, the region's religious actors.

The systematic marginalisation of the Muslim democrats - which underpinned US relations with political Islam throughout the post-Cold War years – will prove particularly detrimental vis-à-vis the promotion of US interests in the post-revolutionary Middle East.

The electoral victory of a moderate Islamic party in Tunisia and the likely emergence, in post-Mubarak Egypt, of a government with a more religious disposition raise a few questions about the ties that regimes in Tunis and Cairo will establish with Washington. The forces that only yesterday were opposing US-backed authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have now become part of the regional leadership: this is not a good outlook for the White House.

Second, the reduced US ability to influence events in the region is connected to the power shift occurring at global level. When it comes to deliberating on Middle Eastern issues, the UN Security Council no longer follows the line dictated by Washington, with the notable exception of matters related to the Palestinian conflict.

There is perhaps no better way to capture the waning of US influence in the region than by drawing a comparison between the 2011 debates on intervention in Syria and the Security Council meetings devoted to the Iraqi issue in 2003.

This time, no wedge has been driven within the anti-intervention camp: the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries - each with a seat on the Council in 2011 - formed a compact front against external involvement in the Syrian conflict. If anything, the vote on Syria - championed by Russia and China - demonstrates the emergence of an alternative vision for the strategic order of the Middle East.

Finally, the unfolding of the European crisis will ultimately affect Washington's stance in the Middle East. In the medium-term, the euro-zone crisis is expected to constrain Europe's role in the Middle East, by limiting the direct input of the European Union vis-à-vis the advancement of democratisation in the region. Severe financial cuts are likely to hit the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the instrument through which Brussels deals with its southern counterparts.

A more inward-looking European Union will cease to assist the United States in the advancement of the Western political project in the Middle East, crippling Washington's prospects in the region.

The loss of influence brought to the fore by these factors might inevitably involve a readjustment in US engagement in the Middle East. It could be therefore expected that an increasing portion of the US regional interest is to be formulated in the Gulf area, where local regimes tend not to question their alignment to the United States.

The stability of these regimes is nevertheless at risk: governance in the Gulf is highly authoritarian, while endemic inequality characterises the internal socio-economic relations. This combination has proven lethal to the survival of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Should the revolutionary unrest spread to the Arabian peninsula, Washington's ability to recognise viable partners in the Middle East will be tested once again.

Luca Anceschi is ARC DECRA Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University.