Inter Press Service
U.S. presidents seeking a second term are not known for taking risks in foreign policy in election years.
Ronald Reagan quickly withdrew U.S. troops from Lebanon in 1983, a year before he sought re-election, after the U.S. forces there became the target of bombings by Shiite militants.
George W. Bush launched the war in Iraq in 2003 in part because he didn't want to start a new conflict a year later. And Bill Clinton waited until almost the end of his second term to make a concerted push for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
With the majority of U.S. citizens preoccupied by domestic concerns, President Barack Obama is also likely to tread water in foreign affairs, seeking incremental progress where possible but not bold breakthroughs.
This is particularly true when it comes to the Arab-Israeli dispute. Obama, unlike most of his predecessors, devoted considerable time and energy to trying to achieve an agreement in his first term. Two days after his inauguration, he appointed a prestigious envoy, George Mitchell, and pressured Israel to slow its expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
The results have been disappointing, to say the least, and Obama and his advisers have retreated in part for domestic political reasons – to avoid alienating some Jewish voters – and in part because they simply don't know what to try next.
Mitchell departed in May and was replaced by a career State Department officer, David Hale, who has made no discernible headway getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), said only a crisis or an unexpected opportunity in the region could prompt a more proactive U.S. role until after next year's elections.
"The situation is untenable but stable for now," Ibish told IPS. "When you look at the array of players, Prime Minister (Salam) Fayyad was right."
Ibish was referring to remarks by the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Fayyad told a large audience at an ATFP dinner in Washington Wednesday that "conditions are not ripe at this juncture for a meaningful resumption of talks" with Israel. Palestinian negotiators need "much greater specificity" about what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to concede to make new negotiations worthwhile, Fayyad said.
The Palestinians' other gambit – seeking enhanced status at the United Nations – also seems to be going nowhere, in large part because of U.S. opposition. That leaves the status quo as the best option in the near term.
Fayyad urged U.S. supporters of the Palestinians to press the U.S. Congress not to cut off aid, which has been instrumental in enabling the PA to build the infrastructure of a state and to pay 150,000 employees on whom one million Palestinians in the West Bank depend.
The Palestinian leader also urged the Israeli government to curb violence against Palestinians by Jewish settlers, validate Palestinian security forces by letting them patrol more areas in the West Bank, and treat peaceful Palestinian demonstrators with the same care they do Jewish protestors in Tel Aviv.
Ibish said Israeli restraint on expanding settlements would also be welcome, but real progress would have to wait.
"The Obama administration tried very hard for three years and spent political capital and got nowhere," he said. The White House is "flummoxed by the impasse and not sure how to proceed".
Similar caution is likely when it comes to Syria and Iran.
Regarding Syria, the administration has made it clear that it is not going to intervene militarily to oust embattled President Bashar al- Assad.
While limited U.S. involvement through NATO helped remove the regime in Libya of Moammar Gaddafi – who was killed by opposition forces in his hometown of Sirte on Thursday – Syria is far more complicated.
Syrian opposition forces are not unified and lack a territorial base. U.S. officials for now are urging them to remain peaceful, fearing a sectarian bloodbath if rebels take up arms en masse and the country fractures along ethnic and religious lines.
Appearing Oct. 14 via Skype at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said that while Syrians assured him they would not turn on each other for sectarian reasons, he had heard the same claims in Iraq in 2004, just before that country dissolved in civil strife.
"I worry that a sectarian civil war can happen," in Syria, he said.
Such a development would inevitably draw in neighbours and could become a proxy conflict among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that would kill many thousands and create thousands more refugees. Fighting could also spread into Lebanon, a country with a history of civil war where sectarian divisions still simmer and key players are allied with foreign powers.
The Libya intervention was unique in that it involved a small homogenous nation of little strategic import led by a dictator with almost no international support. Both the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League gave NATO intervention their blessing – something that is unlikely in Syria's case.
Ford also noted that "there is not an armed opposition cable of overthrowing the Syrian government" at this point.
More sanctions to pressure the Assad regime to step down if it continues to refuse to reform are thus the most likely scenario, he said.
Sanctions are also the default mode for Iran. Despite calls by some Washington hawks to use allegations of a foiled Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to attack Iran, the Obama administration is using the case instead to press foreign governments to do a better job of implementing tough financial penalties on Iran.
In general, it appears that Obama has little to fear from the Republicans on foreign affairs as opposed to his track record on the U.S. economy.
With the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Anwar el-Awlaki and even "mad dog" Gaddafi on his watch and the toughest sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran in its history, it will be difficult for Republicans to portray the president as weak on U.S. national security. Even if he was inclined to be bold, Obama's campaign advisers will likely tell him to postpone any ambitious foreign policy gambits for a second term.
Barbara Slavin is a contributor to Inter Press Service.