x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

'Flexibility' on US foreign policy starts now

Barack Obama's re-election gives him the political room to navigate global challenges where US leadership has long been needed, but overshadowed by a bruising political season.

The UAE shares long-term strategic ties with the United States regardless of who sits in the White House. This newspaper watched the US elections as an interested observer rather than a partisan supporter of either candidate, but we can extend congratulations to President Barack Obama, whose victory after a bruising political season gives him four more years in power.

The campaigns of Mr Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, were largely fought on domestic issues, which will continue to challenge the deeply divided politics of the US. But there are immediate foreign policy decisions - regarding Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and the Palestinian struggle - that have direct bearing on the UAE and its allies. Mr Obama's renewed mandate gives him the political room to navigate in ways the political campaign season prevented.

It is true that American foreign policy is a slow ship to turn, and the hot words of the campaigns give little guarantee about the staid policy that will be formulated in the corridors of the State Department or the Pentagon. Any president is constrained by the massive bureaucracy in Washington, not to mention the bulwark of lobbyists and political pressure groups.

In Mr Obama's victory, Americans return a president who does have a record in foreign affairs, which provides at least a measure of certainty about continuity of policy. Aside from overseeing the US withdrawal from Iraq, and belatedly ordering the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr Obama's record might be characterised as not having done too much. Given the two terms - and two wars - of his predecessor, simply not doing more harm is a welcome departure.

But there can be no doubt that Mr Obama has also disappointed some observers, especially in this region. His 2009 speech in Cairo - in which he began with the words "Asalaam Alaikum" - raised hopes about a reset of US policy that has often been clumsy, and sometimes manipulative, in the Middle East and beyond. It is possible that expectations of Mr Obama were unreasonably high. Nevertheless, his inactivity on some issues, and particularly his failure to challenge Israel over settlements and continued human rights abuses, has been disappointing.

An American president's second term is poised between remarkable latitude of action, and the so-called lame duck period of irrelevance. In March, Mr Obama was caught in a revealing open-mic moment, when he told Russia's then-president Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" after the election. That will be true not just in relation to Russia, but to the rest of the world as well. We will see what Mr Obama chooses to do with that power.