Small Wars Journal

The Five Biggest Middle East Challenges for Obama’s Second Term

Thu, 11/29/2012 - 5:30am

After an exhausting, restless, nail-biting and hair-splitting campaign, President Barack Obama edged out Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Election Day to re-claim his seat in the Oval Office for another four years.  For Obama supporters, the victory was an encouraging confirmation of his overall record as Commander-in-Chief during a particularly challenging time in the world.  For the Republican Party, the results on election night serve as a reminder that they need to step back and reassess their positions on some of the most important issues of the day.

With the election over, however, President Obama cannot afford to celebrate until the new year or dwell in his electoral success for too long.  The United States faces an array of problems on the fiscal front, from a climbing national debt to an alarming prospect that Washington will once again be gridlocked for the next four years. 

Foreign policy may not have played an especially vital role in the 2012 presidential election, but that does not mean that the White House can push the subject to the background in a second term.  Trying to get the nation’s economy back on a healthy and resilient footing will understandably be at the forefront of the president’s agenda during the beginning of his second-term.  Yet a considerable amount of time and attention must also be invested globally, from the Asia-Pacific to an African continent that has not gotten the attention many pundits thought it would. 


As should be expected, the Middle East will be one of those regions that can either make or break a president’s foreign policy legacy.  Unfortunately, the Middle East is also a part of the world where solutions are rarely simple and peacemaking is hard to come by.  But with Obama now reeling from an election victory, one can argue that he now has the time and space to follow through on some unfinished business.  Here are some of the top Middle East-related issues that the president needs to tackle throughout his next term:

1. Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Like every president before him, Obama has had a difficult time promoting his Mideast peace agenda.  Yet unlike some of his predecessors, he has also attempted to play the role of impartial intermediary between both parties.  That effort suffered a critical blow early on in his presidency, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outmaneuvered Obama on the all-to-important settlements issue.  Obama’s effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for direct peace negotiations collapsed in the latter part of 2010 after only a few weeks.  The White House has been less than active since.

With the election season over, Obama needs to use his newfound flexibility to push through a new round of diplomacy.  The two-state solution that all sides see as the best option available is quickly becoming obsolete, with Israel continuing to build settlements and the Palestinians too divided to exert pressure on their own.  Mistrust has diluted any effort to get the parties back together, yet the problem is so significant in the eyes of Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs that the effort must be made—however unlikely success may be.  Once Israel seats its next coalition government after elections are completed in January, Obama and his peacemaking team need to renew their push for peace.  Pressure must be exerted on both sides of the dispute.  This will be incredibly difficult thing for the president to do, especially for Obama, who has already been burned on the issue.  A solution, however, will not be any easier to attain as time goes by.

2. Syria

The violence and carnage in Syria is getting worse as the months proceed, with the death toll averaging in the triple-digits every single day.  The Assad regime and the armed opposition are currently in the midst of a classic, yet brutal, war of attrition, with both sides exerting tremendous damage on the country’s infrastructure without getting closer to a final victory.  Entire city districts have been destroyed, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, up to 10 million (by some estimates) have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands have fled Syria for Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. 

The United States and its western allies have been reluctant, if not strongly opposed, to providing the Free Syrian Army with the heavy-weapons and ammunition supplies that are required to put a severe dent on Assad’s air capability.  This concern is not without merit, given the insurgency’s increasingly fractured nature and the creeping radicalization and sectarian-bent among some brigades in the opposition.  With Obama campaigning and fulfilling his pledge to withdraw the United States from conflicts in the Muslim world, he will remain reluctant in getting involved in another one.

Despite those apprehensions, Washington’s allies in the region are becoming increasingly impatient over what some have categorized as America’s hands-off approach.  Turkey especially has been troubled by the lack of assistance from the international community (and from the United States) as thousands of Syrians continue to stream into its refugee camps. 

There is an indication that the Obama administration has realized that the United States needs to be more pro-active in the Syria crisis.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public lobbying what an integral reason why the Syrian political opposition has reorganized its ranks to include dissidents who are currently on the ground.  With the establishment of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a concerted effort is being made to attract representation from groups who were excluded from the Syrian National Council.  Whether this will be enough to silence the critics and soften the blow of an Assad departure remains to be seen, but how fast Assad falls may ultimately depend on what President Obama and his allies in Great Britain and France decide to do.

3. Iran

An issue that is sure to attract the president’s attention during the first few months of his second term is the looming worry over Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Of all of the foreign policy issues that were spoken of during the campaign, the Iranian nuclear crisis was by far the most prevalent.  Iran was mentioned 47 times during the third presidential debate on foreign policy—an illustration of just how important the issue has become to both sides of the political isle.

As much as the White House would love to terminate Iran’s nuclear enrichment program entirely, there is a good chance that the president and his national-security team recognize that such a maximalist goal is nearly impossible to achieve.  After over two decades and billions of dollars in investment, the Iranians are not going to give up their right to enrich domestically, regardless of how tough the international community is.  If a coercive sanctions regime that has strangled the Iranian economy has not forced Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to abandon the nuclear program, it is difficult to believe that more sanctions would.

With this realism in mind, the challenge for the president will be to find a formula to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities while taking Tehran’s grievances into consideration.  While it is often difficult to pinpoint what Iran truly wants, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may very well accept an agreement that grants his country a low-level enrichment capability in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions.  Any Iranian enrichment program, of course, would need to be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with a stringent regime of inspections to ensure compliance. 

When all is said and done, only diplomacy can finalize a solution that is both permanent and durable.  The president will confront some unwanted pressure from his critics and perhaps a continuation of the “appeasement” argument that those on the far right have leveled against him during his first term.  But with no more campaigns to worry about in the future, Obama’s political constraints to hammering such a deal will not be nearly as great. 

With a flexible approach to the Iranians and a strong assurance to the Israelis that Washington will not give away too much during the negotiation process, Obama could strike an accord that provides the right mix of concessions and conditions that everyone (including Israel) can live with.  Reports that the White House is considering a faster drawdown of oil sanctions in exchange for significant Iranian concessions on the nuclear front is a sign that Obama’s national-security team wants to get talks going again.

4. Bahrain

Compared to the chaos and carnage of Syria, the Kingdom of Bahrain looks like an island of stability in an otherwise tumultuous part of the world.  Situated in the Persian Gulf between its two giant neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has long relished in its depiction as a rich and friendly state that is kind to its people and tolerant to all nations.  Yet these days, that ideal version of the country is becoming far more difficult to sustain for the al-Khalifa ruling family.

After Egyptians and Tunisians mobilized en masse in the streets of their respective capitals, thousands of Bahrainis decided to launch their own version of the Arab Spring movement.  To the delight of pro-democracy advocates worldwide, Bahrainis shouted for a more transparent government and a more empowered parliament—a body that resembles a passive debating society rather than an active legislature.  There were calls from some fringe groups for the downfall of the al-Khalifa monarchy, but those voices were overshadowed by a mainstream Shia population that has pushed for more reasonable goals: an end to discriminatory practices and the type of political rights that would reside in a constitutional monarchy. 

Rather than meet their people halfway, the Bahraini Government chose to crack down hard.  Demonstrators were rounded up, thrown into prison on frivolous charges of endangering the national unity of the monarchy, and in the most extreme cases killed on the streets.  Medics who treated the protesters were arrested and charged as well, with the government considering them a part of an Iranian-inspired conspiracy to supplant the monarchy with a Shia religious state.

Since the protest movement was crushed in the capital with the help of the Gulf Arab states, the political conflict in Bahrain has gotten more dangerous.  Hardliners on both sides of the issue are slowly supplanting the moderates who have urged for reconciliation.  Bahrain police officers are now suffering more casualties from some of the very same protesters who marched peacefully in the streets of Manama last year.

The Obama administration has largely stayed away from Bahrain, viewing the island and its royal family as a strategic asset just across Iranian shores.  With the Bahraini Government hosting the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, Washington has embarked on the path of realism— denouncing some of Bahrain’s aggressive actions while keeping the general security alliance ironclad.  The problem, at least from the perspective of many Bahrainis, is that words of discouragement from Washington have not had much of an effect on the Bahraini Government’s repressive behavior.

If the US wants to be seen as a country that is unquestionably on the side of the Arab world’s democracy movements, it will have to find a way that puts Bahrain on a tighter leash.

5. Gaza

With hundreds of rockets having rained down on southern Israel over the past few months, the Israeli Government has been pushed to the breaking point.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have ordered the Israel Defense Forces to respond to the rocket fire with strength and resolve.  For the six days, Israel has undertaken a massive and coordinated aerial campaign against terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.  Israeli aircraft accurately hit hundreds of military targets during the first days of the IDF operation, including rocket-launching pads, weapons depots, Hamas command buildings and underground tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border.  Hamas’ military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike in the opening hours of the campaign—a hit that has taken an extremely effective military mind off of Hamas’s roster.

Flare-ups of violence between Israel and Gaza-based militants are common.  When they do occur, the United States typically follows a two-track policy: Washington reiterates its support for Israel’s right to self-defense, but also calls on all parties to reach an immediate ceasefire before the situation spirals out of control.  Egypt has played a vital role in the process, using its contacts with Israel and Hamas to establish short-term ceasefires in order to preserve stability and prevent further casualties among Palestinians and Israelis.  Yet the US and Arab supported ceasefires always seem to erode over time, with another round of conflict just around the corner. 

Since the United States considers Hamas a terrorist group, the Obama administration has very little leverage inside of Gaza.  Relying on Egypt to calm tensions in the Strip has been the de-facto US policy since Hamas kicked out the Palestinian Authority five years ago.  Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense is the biggest indication yet that relying on the Egyptians is not going to provide a lasting peace in Gaza. 

There are a litany of important issues in the Middle East that are not covered by this list.  A Libya struggling to define itself after forty-plus years of dictatorship; a potential succession crisis in the Saudi royal family; and conserving the Egypt-Israel peace accord are only three examples.  The five problems discussed above, however, could prove to be the most damaging to US national security if they are kicked down the road and left to fester over the coming four years. 

Categories: Syria - Palestine - Israel - Iran - Gaza

About the Author(s)


Daniel R. DePetris is an independent researcher and a Small Wars Journal contributor.  All views expressed are the author's alone.


In my opinion, given recent events, President Obama appears to be implementing a far more pragmatic, less costly, goal oriented policy in the Middle East centered around US interests. The administration is ending this country's costly and unnecessary large scale military and nation building involvement in Afghanistan as he ended in Iraq. The campaign against Al Qaeda et al is shifting to counter terrorism where a handful of Special Forces / SOG troops (backed up by ship or land based air power when needed) support local government forces fighting / tying down the terrorists in Yemen, Mali, Somalia, etc where they (the terrorists) can suffer from long term attrition while they fight for their survival at very little cost to this country.

The President is positioning Naval and Air Force units (at no expense other than sunk costs) to prevent future nuclear war from occurring in the region -- which would have far more world wide disastrous results then most understand, and is positioning US Air and Naval forces to insure the flow of oil from that region to the industrialized nations of the world which our intertwined economies rely. He is also wisely not engaging in the Syrian Civil War, despite attempt by Erdogan of Turkey to get the US involved at our cost and his imagined gain.

Also, President Obama and Secretary Clinton recently out maneuvered the radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran in the recent Gaza conflict. They made it clear to Morsi that his country's desperately needed economic aid depended on his co-operation reigning in Hamas, are removing Iran's influence and leveraging of the area by moving to cut off their supplying Hamas with linger range missiles, and noted by only a few publicly told Erdogan of Turkey that his anti-Israel comments were not helpful -- in essence (not so) diplomatically putting him in his place. Obama is also repositioning several Aegis Destroyers and Cruisers into the Eastern Mediterranean Sea as a signal to both Iran that any attack by them will be opposed by the US and to Israel as part of maneuvering aimed at curtailing any plan by Netanyahu to attack Iran.

Any of the mentioned better known possible candidates for Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense would be valuable in implementing and sustaining this strategy. Chuck Hagel is a pragmatic intelligent individual and would go a long way to neutralizing any Republican opposition from the McCain interventionist camp as would John Kerry who seems to have good relations with that group. The current Ambassador to the UN is similarly well qualified, the question is just how much effort will be needed for a potential political battle over her nomination.

If this administration can continue to capitalize on its recent diplomatic success in Egypt / Gaza and succeed in cutting off the flow of arms to Hamas it will gain leverage to maneuver both Israel and Gaza to swap no more rocket attacks in exchange for the open borders that initially existed when the Israeli's pulled out of Gaza. A time when literally thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel. The result of open borders between the two would lead to an economic boom in Gaza that would eventually nullify Hamas's radical hold on the population and allow that essentially independent state to thrive which would benefit Israel. It would also place the US in a diplomatic position to force through persuasion both the Israeli's and the Palestinians on the West Bank to accept the Ehud Barak / Clinton offered very fair peace terms -- which is the best they will ever receive -- including a sharing of Jerusalem. Those Israeli settlements that on the other side of the negotiated border -- which will not be the 1948 armistice lines between Israel and Jordan, will be given up by their occupants in exchange for new home in Israel, just as occurred when the Israeli's left Gaza -- and all parties realize that fact despite their negotiating stance otherwise.

I also don't believe the US has any intention of attacking Iran, but will (intelligently) opt for implementing a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) vis-a-vis that nation -- which will someday have atomic weapons. Atomic weapons provide no offensive capability to a possessing nation and each knows that their use of them in that manner would result in their country's utter annihilation. The majority of Israel's senior military and intelligence operatives (current and retired) seem to believe that also. Ehud Barak's retirement from politics and government may also have something to do with this issue. His overseen employment of the incredibly successful(and ever increasing) Iron Dome system may have been a high note to his career, but it is just as interesting that he is choosing to depart when there is an alleged potential conflict with the Iranians that may occur. For those who know the man and his career, he would not be leaving his position as defense minister if he thought the potential for that conflict was real. He is a great and successful strategic thinker who as a result of his military service in the Sarayet Mitkal is a practitioner of the indirect approach -- and not a fan of costly frontal attacks. He also spoke highly about the Obama Administration when questioned by US newsmen during the election, as the President noted in his debates and speeches.

Bahrain will continue to be Sunni controlled and protected by Saudi Arabia -- which will annex it if need be. The conflict in Syria will continue and slowly but surely (probably) the Sunni rebels will drive the Assad forces into a small enclave and like Lebanon the country will be somewhat Balkanized. The US may encourage the Saudis to facilitate this through by supplying the rebels with a minimum number of shoulder fired surface to air missiles and anti-tank missiles. The resulting shoot down of Syrian aircraft will ground the Syrian Air Force or their Shiite pilots and planes will fly (flee) to Iraq presuming they can figure out how to get their families out of the country. This country is wise to allow the locals to fight that battle out without getting involved. There is no cost to the US that way. Turkey will not intervene as Erdogan is all talk, his draftee army is strong only on paper, and the people in that country are against involvement in an Arab conflict, and Turkish forces entering an Arab country with the intent to remain will bring a violent reaction the Turks are not willing to suffer.

This may be idealistic, but I believe this is where the Obama Administration is headed as indicated by both its actions and the names of individuals being tossed around for key military and diplomatic positions. The Obama Administration is coming of age and that portends (I believe well) for this country on the international fronts.

Mark Pyruz

Thu, 11/29/2012 - 3:18pm

A sensible approach put forward here towards Iran. Just to expand on that a bit, the Iranians have over the years put forward a number of compromise offers, including having foreign firms--even American--build and operate nuclear fuel making plants on Iranian soil.

With the nuclear issue solved and a Nixon-to-China rapprochement achieved with Iran, there's a lot of money potentially to be made by American firms in that country.