Obama steers the same course for America

19 January 2009
Barack Obama will continue most of his predecessor's policies. But he may help get things done quicker.

US president from this week, Obama looks and sounds different - but not all that much will change.

Plans to increase public spending by up to $1 trillion look startling. But they are line with the economic recovery principles embraced by President Bush following the collapse of Lehman Brothers last September. John McCain, if he had won the presidential election, would have been obliged to do something similar.

Like President Bush, Obama believes America is the world's greatest nation and wants to make it stronger. America under Obama will woo China and treat Russia with suspicion. Like every president since 1945, Obama wants Europe to be strong, but not too strong. Latin America will be patronised and Africa assisted.

Nowhere is continuity more obvious than in the Middle East. The war on terror, although it will no longer be called that, will go on. Afghanistan will become the priority as it became for Bush. His defence secretary, Robert Gates, is Obama's for the foreseeable future. This ensures that there will be no patience in the Pentagon for those wanting war against Iran about its nuclear programme, or anything else.

Settled US policies

Obama has declared the "job done" in Iraq. It could have been Bush talking. The Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Baghdad is being interpreted by Gates, without objection from the new president, as allowing a huge American presence long after the deadline for US troops to leave that Obama promised. So no change there either.

Nothing Obama has said suggests he will alter Bush's approach to the Arab-Israel conflict. Since 2004, the US State Department has shaped Washington's policies and will continue to do so. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be a new face and not much else.

This may be dispiriting, but it should not be. A reaffirmed commitment to settled US policies is the only option.

Since the 1991 Madrid conference, the best attempt to develop a final Middle East settlement, the US has been pressing Israel to accept a twin-state solution. For this to happen, agreement must be reached about the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees. The Golan Heights will have to be returned to Syria.

It is impossible to secure any more concessions from Arab states without forcing them to abandon the Palestinians. That will never happen and every US policy-thinker knows it. The only option is for Obama to persist with the tedious process of trying to convince Israel that it is in its best interests to help create a viable Palestinian state.

Dreaded phone call

This may become more challenging if hawkish Likud Party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Israel's prime minister following its general elections on 10 February. But Netanyahu is displaying little of the aggressive energy that was a feature of his successful first campaign for the premiership in 1996.

Perhaps the years have taken their toll. Perhaps it is the disappointed hopes and the scandals. But perhaps Netanyahu knows that there is nothing he can do to change US Middle East policy.

Success next month will be followed soon after by a phone call that most would welcome and he must surely dread. It will be from President Obama asking for help that he will not want to provide. And Netanyahu will not be able to say no.

What will make Obama different will not be in policy. It will be in the moral authority he derives from his win in November and the hopes the world has in him. Under Obama, America will not change course. But it could get there quicker.

A MEED Subscription...

Subscribe or upgrade your current MEED.com package to support your strategic planning with the MENA region’s best source of business information. Proceed to our online shop below to find out more about the features in each package.

Get Notifications