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Obama still in search of enduring legacy abroad

For all of Barack Obama's achievements - not least, becoming America's first African-American president - he has yet to leave his mark abroad. Taimur Khan reports from Washington

President Barack Obama addresses a cheering crowd at his election night party in Chicago. The most likely arena for him to leave his mark is the Middle East.
President Barack Obama addresses a cheering crowd at his election night party in Chicago. The most likely arena for him to leave his mark is the Middle East.

WASHINGTON // By almost any measure, Barack Obama is a man of immense accomplishment.

In a private White House ceremony yesterday, Mr Obama took the presidential oath of office for a second time, and today he will be feted in public ceremonies and festivities that last well into the chilly Washington night.

Yet for all of Mr Obama's achievements - not least, becoming America's first African-American president, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and winning re-election in a landslide - he is still a leader in search of an enduring legacy abroad.

So far, his marquee success was the audacious military operation that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. But that deed is tempered by the fact that the foundations of the operation were put in place by his predecessor, George W Bush.

The most likely arena for Mr Obama to leave his mark is the Middle East, where a whirlwind of change offers him the most obvious opportunity to help shape events, if not shepherd them. Some critics say it is now time for Washington to to now articulate an overarching strategic vision for the Middle East that lays out what its long-term goals are.

"The challenge is to devise a clear strategy that defines the challenges of transformative change sweeping the region, mitigates threats to US interests, and identifies opportunities to help shape and channel powerful forces for change," wrote Mona Yacoubian, a senior Middle East adviser at the Stimson Center in Washington.

But others say that the administration has already shown that it believes it cannot affect the outcomes of the transitions, and that the inevitable policy contradictions that arise as it tries to balance ideals against interests will undermine the its claims.

"In 2011 as the uprisings unfolded, there was a lot of emphasis from the White House and State Department on the need to find a new way of approaching the region that takes seriously the priorities of reform and democracy," said Peter Mandaville, a professor at George Mason University in Washington who was a member of secretary of state Hillary Clinton's policy planning staff at the time.

"But as the transitions have proven to be difficult and especially complex, I think the US has found it very hard to change the nature of its conduct in the region, and it certainly has a great difficulty convincing the people of the Arab world that it has a new and genuine commitment to democracy and human rights."

While the tempo of crises may have decreased, the Middle East is still far from the relative calm necessary for articulating and implementing a grand American strategy.

"Is the idea somehow that the administration will be able to stop chasing fires and instead focus on how to use aid more strategically to bring about certain reforms and so on?" said Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "There is no point in speculating about what the US would do because over the next couple of years it is going to confront crisis after crisis."

And plenty of potential crises will face the president.

One that he will likely confront early in his second term are the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, which many expect to start soon.

"This is one issue where the political space provided by the end of the election cycle will likely lead the administration to act with less concern about the US domestic political effect," Mr Mandaville said. "Its something they have been working on quite concertedly, even if much of that work is quiet at times."

The war in Syria, too, is expected to be one of the first items on the president's agenda, though the path he will take remains unclear.

"Even if Assad should go, it's going to be a long time for that country to find equilibrium," Ms Ottaway said.

She added that the US State Department has begun to pay attention to rising tensions in Iraq between Baghdad and Kurdish officials in the north over their development of oilfields and the building of a pipeline to Turkey. "Before long we are going to face a huge new crisis in Iraq," she said.

But more than the resolution of any one of these crises, perhaps Mr Obama's greatest foreign policy legacy might not materialise in the form of treaties, accords or the careful, behind-the-scenes shaping of political transitions. It might well be his move away from the unilateral approach of his predecessor, who tried unsuccessfully to shape the Middle East through force.

In his first term, Mr Obama refocused US engagement on diplomacy, alliances with rising regional powers and working with coalitions. Sanctions against Iran, the military coalition against Muammar Qaddafi and pushing Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi to help negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza illustrate the trend.

"The US is starting to come to terms with the fact that it may not have the kind of influence it once did," said Mr Mandaville. "So it's going to need to figure out how to work in partnership with a wider range of actors, like Turkey, Egypt, Qatar."

While engagement with rising powers while still pursuing US interests may never emerge as a sound bite-ready doctrine, it would mean a fundamentally new course for the US since the end of the Second World War.

"Can the US pursue and guard geopolitical efforts that push in the direction of the world the US would like to see while bringing along and sharing burdens of doing so with a wider range of emerging powers?" said Mr Mandaville.

"If he sets in motion the process that puts the US in that situation, then he will have pulled off one of the most significant foreign policy configurations of the last couple hundred years."

But others doubt how truly shared the burdens will be.

"With the crosscutting regional conflicts, civil war, the Sunni-Shiite issue - ultimately none of these countries, alone or in combination, can order the region and they're going to look to the US for leadership," said Steven A Cook, a senior fellow for Mideast studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

While burden-sharing is important, he added, an abiding US policy is that "no other country aside from itself should be dominant in the region".

foreign.desk@thenationl.ae

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