Let’s start at the beginning: foreign policy is not going to be any higher a priority for President Barack Obama in 2013 than it was in 2012. Whether or not the United States falls off the fiscal cliff on New Year’s Eve, engineering the political conditions for economic recovery will weigh most heavily on the new administration. That being said, a second-term president no longer has the same electoral considerations. If he chooses to devote more time to foreign affairs, there will be both opportunities and risk on offer in the Middle East.
John Kerry, the new shoo-in candidate to replace Hillary Clinton, will find the State Department still digesting the wave of instability, popular unrest and regime change that began in the spring of 2011. So far, not so good. Political divides are deeper, economies are weaker and security is thinner.
On the Iranian front, it looks like this could be the year that US patience for Iranian prevarication will run out. If talks do fail — and there is a high level of mutual distrust to overcome — the chance of military action increases. Despite a troubled relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security is solid, with strong military and strategic co-operation to tie the countries together. The expected appointment of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defence may cause some concerns in Jerusalem but will not fundamentally alter that relationship. The US will also have to factor in the concerns of Gulf allies if an Iranian “grand bargain” is really on the agenda for 2013.
It is unlikely that the US will be able to avoid further entanglement in the Syrian civil war, which threatens to destabilise the entire region. Brutal repression of pro-democracy demonstrations by the Assad regime alienated moderates and pushed Syria into military conflict from which there can now be no return, but for which there is no immediate solution. Mr Obama will try to encourage the Syrian National Coalition to become a unified and credible opposition in 2013, but with radical al-Qaeda elements active in the coalition, will be extremely wary of arming the rebels.
The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks looks dim. Mr Obama’s first-term efforts were unsuccessful and neither side’s leaders seem any more ready for meaningful negotiations. If he does return to the issue, he — or perhaps John Kerry — will need a better plan.
Balancing American interests in the region will continue to be tricky. As commander-in-chief, the president can best maintain regional stability and security by supporting existing regimes, however unpalatable their domestic policy may be. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama, however, might want to encourage greater freedom and democracy across the region as the best way out of the current situation.