x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Test of leadership comes when there's a big surprise

US foreign policy is not as bipartisan as some like to think. But in any case, the issues you've studied in advance are not always the ones that really matter.

Those of us living in the UAE have been spared the thousands of duelling television ads that many Americans have been seeing, touting the presidential candidates.

When the results are in, Americans will breathe a sigh of relief: it will finally be over, at least until the next cycle begins.

But for those of us who reside in the midst of so many foreign policy challenges in the Middle East, will it be just the beginning? What will the issues be, and how much difference will the identity of the next president make? What lessons have been learnt?

Conventional wisdom has often proclaimed that most US foreign policy is bipartisan and that party bickering stops at the water's edge. But there have been notable exceptions in recent history.

The first President George Bush barely secured Senate approval for military action repelling Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. And his denial of loan guarantees to Israel in the controversy over settlements may have cost him re-election. And President Bill Clinton's intervention in Kosovo was bitterly opposed by many Senate Republicans.

If you saw the Obama-Romney foreign policy debate on television, you would have noticed how little daylight there was between the two on current foreign policy.

So does it really matter whether US policy in the world is directed by President Obama or President Romney?

The foreign-policy debate revealed a fundamental agreement that a strong foreign policy depends upon a strong economy at home.

Vast deficits, uncontrolled spending and inadequate revenue will handicap any nation's aspirations to greatness. We have already seen the current administration's low profile in the conflict in Libya and an even smaller role in Syria.

Unmanned drone missions and cyber attacks are replacing troops and armour in many quarters. "Coalitions of the willing" favoured by President George W Bush for diplomatic and operational reasons are now a necessity due to constrained resources.

While the candidates disagree sharply on how to restore the US economy, they both acknowledge that America's international standing is severely weakened by its fiscal crisis.

The zone of agreement goes further. Both candidates say Iran must not acquire a nuclear weapon, although neither has said how he would prevent Iran from building one, beyond speaking of increased economic sanctions.

Both say Bashar Al Assad's regime in Syria must go, although Mr Romney has been a bit more vocal about "indirectly" providing more aid to the rebels.

Both have come to terms with the overthrow of Egypt's Mubarak regime, although both have been reluctant to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood.

And the two men have been racing to see who can portray himself as the closest friend of Israel.

Naturally, there are also some areas of disagreement. President Obama stands by his announcement that US forces will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, while Mr Romney hints at the need to stay longer.

Mr Romney was immediately critical of the administration's handling of the Benghazi killings, while Mr Obama refuses to concede any mismanagement.

Mr Romney would "talk tough" to China while Mr Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has said it's hard to talk tough to your banker.

On a broader scale, amid the clutter of campaign rhetoric it is difficult to discern how each candidate interprets the recent tectonic shifts in the Middle East.

A lot has changed since September 2001. US travellers have become used to the indignities of personal searches in an effort to avoid the next terrorist attack. Diplomats are co-operating more successfully with allies against extremist threats. Allies understand that they can't ignore extremists.

But fighting terrorism is just the beginning of sound US policy. Education and jobs can stabilise a society better than a police force. Corruption must be fought. Good governance can quiet dissent.

But one size does not fit all. Regimes that called themselves "democracies" failed to listen to their peoples and were brought down. Yet monarchies that expand their economies, providing opportunity and freedom, can flourish.

Today US policymakers see a nuanced world in which culture and local conditions play a significant role in outcomes. They see that Islam is not the enemy and need not stand in the way of progress.

In addition to the challenges of a changed world and limited resources, the next president must expect to deal with a divided Congress, a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate - and with some changes of congressional leadership on foreign policy.

Long-time moderate Republican Senator Richard Lugar, of Indiana, lost his primary election, others are retiring, and leaders in the House are being rotated out of their chairmanships due to term limits. Their experience will not be easy to replace.

Finally, barring the shock of the century, the new president likely will be elected by the slimmest of margins, perhaps not even carrying the popular vote. He will lack a clear mandate and will face an impatient, weary nation.

And we have not yet addressed the unknown - the crisis no one sees coming. A newly elected John Kennedy had to deal with the Cuban missile crisis; President George W Bush had to face the attacks of September 11. Those events changed the trajectory of those presidencies.

So perhaps the next big foreign policy question, the one not yet asked, will be answered not on the basis of politics but as a question of wisdom and character.

 

Robert Jordan is partner in charge of the Middle East practice of the international law firm Baker Botts LLP and a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia