WASHINGTON - With President Barack Obama
winning re-election, foreign policy analysts here
are pondering whether his victory will translate
into major changes from the rather cautious
approach he followed overseas in his first term.
For now, speculation is focused primarily
on the Middle East, the region that has dominated
the international agenda since 9/11, much to the
frustration of those in the Obama administration
who are hoping to accelerate Washington's "pivot"
to the Asia/Pacific, especially in light of
growing tensions between China and Japan and the
ongoing political transition in Beijing.
Others are hoping that Obama will be
willing to invest a fair amount of whatever
additional political capital he gained from his
victory on reviving
international efforts to curb global warming, a
challenge that thrust itself back into public
consciousness here with hurricane-force winds as
"Super-Storm Sandy" tore up much of the
northeastern coast, including lower Manhattan.
Indeed, long-frustrated environmental
groups seized on Obama's allusion to the
"destructive power of a warming planet" in his
Chicago victory speech early Wednesday morning as
a sign that the president, who hardly mentioned
the problem during the campaign for fear of key
coal-producing swing states, notably Ohio, may
make climate change one of his "legacy" issues.
"President Obama's legacy will be shaped
by his ability to take on big challenges,
including climate change, clean energy,
environmental protection, and sustainability,"
said Andrew Steer, president of the World
With climate change
and other issues that have major domestic
implications, however, Obama will be constrained
by certain political realities, most notably the
fact Republicans will still hold a solid majority
in the House of Representatives and 45 seats in
the Senate, enabling them to effectively block any
legislation to which they are strongly opposed.
"You've had an election that more or less
preserves the status quo in the House," noted
Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy expert at the
Council on Foreign Relations. "At a time when
Obama's top priority is getting the economy going,
I'm not sure we'll see a major initiative on
And while Obama won a
sturdy majority of the electoral vote, his margin
in the national vote is unlikely to exceed 3% when
all the votes are counted. As a result, the
institutional and partisan balance of power
remains much the same as before the election.
Moreover, the fact that foreign policy did
not play much of a role in a campaign dominated by
the economy - only 5% of voters told pollsters as
they left the voting booth that foreign affairs
was the most important issue facing the country -
suggests that Obama cannot claim a clear mandate
for major policy changes.
Still, the fact
that his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney,
dropped his earlier hawkish, neo-conservative
rhetoric as the election approached and
essentially embraced Obama's general policy
approach, including even in the Middle East, in
the closing weeks of the campaign was taken by
some as a green light, if not a mandate, to pursue
the president's instincts.
campaign, and not only the outcome, should be seen
as the rout of the neo-conservatism of the
disastrous 2001-2006 period of the [George W] Bush
administration and the consolidation of a broad,
bipartisan foreign policy consensus," wrote Middle
East analyst and occasional White House adviser
Marc Lynch on his foreignpolicy.com blog on
He predicted that what he
called Obama's "caution and pragmatism" in the
region, particularly with respect to generally
supporting democratic transitions, seeking ways to
convene Israelis and Palestinians, engaging
moderate Islamists, and pursuing al-Qaeda and its
affiliates, is unlikely to change, although he
suggested that bolder approaches in some areas
were called for.
In particular, the
administration should begin "serious efforts at
real talks with Iran" on its nuclear programme and
"be prepared to take 'yes' for an answer", he
wrote, echoing a consensus among realists in the
foreign policy establishment that Obama will have
greater flexibility to strike a deal with Tehran
now than at any time in the last two years.
Reports of back-channel talks between the
US and Iran in preparation for a new round of
negotiations between Tehran and the so-called P5+1
powers - the five permanent members of the UN
Security Council plus Germany - after the election
have been circulating for two weeks.
also called for Washington to get behind a major
push to unify the two main Palestinian factions
and "encourage the renewal of a peace camp in the
upcoming Israeli election" in hopes reviving
serious efforts to achieve a two-state solution -
a recommendation that also been urged by many
analysts disappointed by Obama's failure over the
last two years to apply real pressure on Israel to
halt the growth of Jewish settlements in the West
Bank and East Jerusalem.
Since 2010, Obama
and his fellow Democrats have avoided confronting
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - who
made little secret of his support for Romney - on
either issue in major part because they felt their
re-election chances depended heavily on the
neutrality, if not the goodwill of the powerful
Remarkably, however, those
fears appear to have proved largely unfounded.
Despite the expenditure of tens of millions of
dollars in swing states on ads by the hard-line
neo-conservative Republican Jewish Coalition and
the Emergency Committee for Israel, as well as
repeated charges by Romney that Obama had "thrown
Israel under the bus", 70% of Jewish voters opted
for the president - a result that suggested that
at least those hard-line neo-conservative elements
of the lobby most closely tied to Netanyahu and
the settler movement were not nearly as powerful
as generally believed.
If so, Obama may
have more room for maneuver on both
Israel-Palestine and Iran, if he chooses to
exercise it, than he himself previously thought.
Indeed, the election results were greeted
with some considerable anxiety by Netanyahu's
supporters both here and in Israel.
"Remember that Obama is deeply committed
to three things: global nuclear disarmament,
rapprochement with the Islamic world, and
Palestinian statehood," wrote David Weinberg on
Wednesday in Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper
funded by US casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a
major Netanyahu backer who also funded the
election ads against Obama.
that he will forcefully act to progress on all
three fronts, and this could bring him into
conflict with Israel. So start filling your
sandbags. We're in for a rough ride."
Moreover, surveys of Jewish voters
nationwide and in the swing states of Ohio and
Florida commissioned by J Street, a "pro-peace"
Zionist group, found that Obama's tally among
Jewish voters was only 4% less than in 2008 -
roughly the same proportionate loss he suffered
among virtually all demographic groups, except
Latinos, who increased their support for the
president significantly compared to four years
The surveys also found overwhelming
(79%) support for the creation of a Palestinian
state in the West Bank and Gaza and East
Jerusalem, 76% support for an active US role in
negotiating a settlement, as well as a significant
plurality for continuing diplomacy with Iran.
Still Kupchan believes Obama is unlikely
to aggressively challenge Netanyahu, especially on
the Israel-Palestinian issue.
"I think the
chances of a major push on the peace process are
slim," said Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy
expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "That
would happen only if there is an opening of sorts
in the region or if it comes primarily from within
Israel and a shift in the electoral landscape
there that gives it Netanyahu an incentive to do
But he, too, predicted
that Obama will try harder to reach some agreement
with Iran in the coming months while continuing to
resist intervention - especially military
intervention - amid the continuing turmoil in the
"The one place you'll see a
growing footprint and presence and growing
activism," he said, will be in Asia, especially if
"things heat up more over territorial disputes
between China and its neighbors. And the new
Chinese leadership may pursue a more
confrontational stance which could in turn invite
an American response in kind."
Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read