What a difference four years can make. In 2008, Barack Obama’s victory turned into a worldwide celebration. Just as many Americans took to the streets to express their joy, around the world the relief was palpable: there would be no extension of the policies of the George W Bush era. Nowhere was this felt more than in the Middle East, where most people were aghast at Bush’s policies, still reeling from the “shock and awe” doctrine he espoused in order to fulfil his ambition of transforming the region.
I was reminded of this yesterday in Cairo, during an encounter with an Iraqi refugee who had come to the Egyptian capital in 2005 after much of his hometown of Diyala came under Sunni insurgent control. Over the next few years it would become one of the main areas of operations for the “surge” carried by the US military. He asked me how, as an American, I felt about Obama’s re-election. I told him it was better than a Romney victory. He shrugged.
A shrug may well be the way most of the Arab world received the news of Obama’s victory. As in the US itself, the excitement over the prospect of a transformational politician is gone – the main reason many have preferred Obama is simply that Romney was seen to be in the Bush mould.
This must be said with a caveat: there are many attitudes to US politics and the policies of the Obama administration in the region, and a shrug by an Iraqi in Cairo might contrast with enthusiasm in Libya, where Mitt Romney’s tough talk after the Benghazi consulate attack was cause for concern. I have met Syrians who cheered Romney because they expected him to adopt a more muscular policy. Then there are Egyptians who feel that Obama has too quickly embraced movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood as the new dominant political force. Or Yemenis not particularly fond of the steady stream of bombings and drone attacks the US has launched in their country.
The list could go on. What is significant is that this election seemed less important to the Middle East than any for at least two decades, when, just as the cold war was coming to an end, the US massively increased its military and diplomatic presence in the region. In many respects, the identity of the US president simply does not matter here as it once did. America is highly restricted in terms of what it can do in the region by its own economic crisis and by war fatigue among the electorate.
The Obama administration has found ways to pursue its military priorities, of course – for instance, the expansion in the use of drones. The technology, whatever its moral hazards, still suggests a move away from the overreach of the Clinton and Bush administrations. And this once-ossified region is now changing so fast that America’s strategic planners, and its politicians, are reluctant to get dragged into what looks like a very messy decade ahead. Events have overwhelmed them, and for all the talk of Romney’s neoconservative foreign policy team, one was struck by his rejection of US participation in a no-fly zone for Syria during the presidential debate on foreign policy. There was no radical difference between the candidates when it came to the Middle East, just a difference in emphasis.
Obama supposedly performed a “reboot” in June 2009 with a speech in Cairo, much lauded at the time as a piece of “engagement” with the Arab world. I still think of it as one of the worst moments of his Middle East policy, a superficial exercise in public relations which scandalously honoured his host, Hosni Mubarak, at a time his regime was rapidly becoming more repressive. Just as with his efforts at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict early in his first term, Obama promised more than he could deliver. This mismanagement of expectations soon came back to haunt him: on Palestine, when he vetoed a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN even as he warned that the two-state solution was in danger; and during the Arab spring, when what was good for Tunisia was not necessarily good for Bahrain.
Over the next four years, some of these contradictions will come to the fore again. The topography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is changing because of shifts in Israeli and Palestinian politics. The spirit of the Arab uprisings may well resurface in the monarchies that are Washington’s closest remaining Arab allies. Syria offers a terrible conundrum, but also an opportunity to back a regionally led solution to the conflict.
Obama cannot offer grand solutions to the Middle East’s problems, and Arabs are not expecting him to. All the better, perhaps, as Arab problems should have Arab solutions, not US ones.
Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst on Middle Eastern affairs.