A more proactive role in the Middle East is expected from U.S. President Barack Obama in his second term, in part because of the urgency of the challenges facing Washington in the region, as well as the nomination of Senator John Kerry to be the nation’s top diplomat in the next four years.
While the Obama Presidency started in 2008 with high hopes in the Middle East following the Cairo speech, outreach to Iran, and the launch of the Peace Process, those were dashed with the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the continued stalemate with Iran, and later on with the ongoing crisis in Syria. The enormity of the challenges pose high stakes for U.S. interests in the region, and require a more vigorous diplomatic push by the administration today. Early indications from the White House point to some movement in that direction, whether through reevaluating more options on Iran, and Syria, or through the nomination of Kerry, a master negotiator, as the next Secretary of State.
On the policy level, the Iranian nuclear stalemate tops the challenges for the U.S. in the Middle East, with the growing risks of Tehran obtaining nuclear weapon capability in 2013, the threats of an Israeli strike and the possibility of spurring a nuclear arms race in the region. The Obama administration has waited till after the elections to mull serious talks with Iran, and reports point to a big diplomatic initiative in the works which includes as a start incentives for Tehran in return for agreeing to lower enrichment production.
A slightly faster American pace has been seen in dealing with the Syrian crisis since November, with the administration recognizing the Syrian National Coalition as “the legitimate” representative of the Syrian people, and with its head Mouaz El-Khatib planning his first trip to Washington in few weeks. The administration has also welcomed the results of the Antalya meeting last month creating a joint military command for the opposition but excluding Jubhat Al-Nusra, now a terrorist organization according to U.S. law. High level sources say that Washington opened channels with armed groups in Northern Syria, and is reevaluating its options on arming the opposition, which if implemented would mark a shift in policy since the start of the uprising. A bigger U.S. role is needed to prevent a regional spillover of the Syrian conflict to neighboring countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, and that are already seeing some sectarian fighting.
A bolder Obama agenda in the Middle East will find in Senator Kerry a seasoned consensus builder who is well equipped with deep regional knowledge to run the State Department. Kerry as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee played an instrumental role in passing the new START treaty between the U.S. and Russia in 2010, after holding 12 hearings and lengthy negotiations that spun to 12-hr a day to ease Republican concerns with the bill. Kerry also brokered a deal in 2009 with Afghani President Hamid Karzai after five days of intense negotiations, “300 cups of tea” as he said jokingly, and ended in convincing him to accept the new run-off presidential elections.
In the Middle East, Kerry took his shuttle diplomacy to Syria and Israel between 2009 and early 2011, where he came very close to brokering a framework agreement towards a final Peace settlement. Those efforts were stalled after the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, and Kerry joined the administration in calling on the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down later that year. Kerry, is described by those who know him as a tireless negotiator who is willing to go the extra mile to get an agreement, whether the mission is in Sudan or the U.S. congress. He visited Gaza in 2009 and is a strong advocate of the two state solution.
A new push for the U.S. in the Middle East is an opportunity for both Obama and Kerry to shape their legacy and U.S. leadership role in the Middle East. Achieving an Iranian diplomatic breakthrough, salvaging a solution in Syria, or a Palestinian-Israeli agreement towards the end of the term, can grant Obama the “transformational” record he once saw in his predecessor Ronald Reagan, and it can more importantly spare the Middle East decades of more turmoil and instability.
(Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam)