x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Will the Obama years be defined by the Middle East?

The Obama administration's intensified focus on the Middle East has accentuated a shift, common to many recent presidents, of increased focus on foreign policy in their second terms

President Barack Obama's announcement that he will seek authorisation from the US Congress for limited missile strikes against the Assad regime has the effect of delaying any action until after Congress returns on September 9.

Mr Obama's decision follows the release of a US intelligence report on August 29. This concluded "with high confidence" that the regime was responsible for use of chemical weapons near Damascus last month.

The threat of US-led military strikes in Syria, alongside the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, has refocused Washington's attention towards the Middle East in a manner unanticipated by Mr Obama even only a few weeks ago.

In addition to Syria and Egypt, the Obama administration has recently spent significant political capital on efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The urgency of US focus here reflects growing international conviction that, 20 years after the Oslo Process began, the "window of opportunity" for securing a two-state solution may be closing.

This intensified US focus on the Middle East has accentuated a shift, common to many recent presidents, of increased focus on foreign policy in their second terms. In part, this reflects the fact that presidents often see foreign policy as a key part of the legacy they wish to build. For instance, before Mr Obama, Bill Clinton was the last president to devote significant time to securing a comprehensive peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. And he came close to securing a breakthrough deal in 2000 at the Camp David Summit, but compromise ultimately proved elusive.

However the Middle East is only one of the regions in which the Obama administration looks for legacy. This is for two reasons. First, despite Washington's intensive diplomacy, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement - as Mr Clinton found in 2000 - will prove exceptionally difficult.

Secondly, more than a decade after the Camp David Summit, Asia in general, and China in particular, has assumed much greater importance in US foreign policy.

Following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and the intended drawdown in Afghanistan, Mr Obama is seeking to continue his pivot of US foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region through initiatives like the trans-Pacific Partnership.

Key threats, however, remain on the horizon to securing this reorientation of policy. These include the possibility of further devastating terrorist attacks on the US homeland from Al Qaeda, and a dramatic, sustained escalation of tension in the Middle East in coming months.

As well as legacy-building, the likelihood of Mr Obama spending more time on foreign policy in his second term reflects domestic US politics. Particularly, the intense polarisation and gridlock of Washington following last November's US elections.

The president won a convincing victory over Mitt Romney, but since his re-election, the president has achieved relatively little high profile domestic policy success. His gun control bill was defeated, immigration reform faces significant opposition in the House of Representatives, and the prospect of a long-term federal budgetary "grand bargain" with Congress looks increasing unlikely.

Many second-term presidents in the post-war era have, like Mr Obama, found it difficult to acquire momentum behind a significant new domestic agenda. In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents, as with the Democrats now, often hold a weaker position in Congress in second presidential terms of office.

Thus Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents. This dynamic means policy initiative in Washington - if it exists at all - can edge back to Congress.

Another factor that can undermine productivity of presidential second terms is the fact that re-elected administrations have often been affected by scandals in recent decades (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms).

Thus, Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-Contra badly damaged the Reagan White House, and the Lewinsky scandal led to Mr Clinton being impeached in 1998.

Since Mr Obama's re-election, a series of scandals have hit the administration.

These include revelations that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeted some conservative groups for special scrutiny, which led to the resignation of the acting-IRS commissioner; and the Department of Justice's secret subpoenaing of private phone records of several Associated Press reporters and editors after a terrorist plot leak.

Even if Mr Obama and his administration escape any further scandals, he will not be able to avoid the "lame-duck" factor. That is, as a president cannot seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably refocus elsewhere in the country, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections, which is when the 2016 presidential election campaign kicks into gear.

Taken overall, recent events in the Middle East are therefore only likely to accentuate pre-existing domestic and legacy reasons why Mr Obama is likely to place ever increasing emphasis on foreign policy - over which Congress has less latitude - in his remaining time of office. And, this shift is only likely to be reinforced if, as anticipated, the US economic recovery continues to build up steam in coming months.


Andrew Hammond was formerly a UK Government Special Adviser and Senior Consultant at Oxford Analytica