In a New York Times (NYT) published an article on 26 October, following an interview with National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice on a review of America’s aims and strategy in the Middle East by her White House team. It concluded that the United States should concentrate on the core priorities of interest to it.
President Obama speaking in the United Nations said that these priorities were, the NYT reported; “negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”
The NYT noted that promoting and supporting democracy in the region was not one of the key priorities despite the fact that President Obama had proclaimed it as such in 2011 in Cairo. Susan Rice is quoted by the NYT as saying that the President did not want his entire foreign policy agenda to be swallowed up by the Middle East. America has interests throughout the world, she noted, especially in the Far East where President Obama went to Burma to support democracy rather than deal with Egyptian and Israeli issues. There is a strong perception that America’s future lies in the Asia Pacific where it has to counteract the growing power of China.
The President’s foreign policy has been restricted by battles with the Republicans in Congress and budget cuts due to recession. For Egypt ,Libya and Tunisia, the democratic transition has gone on for too long and is perhaps just too complicated for a cash strapped and confused United States public, on whom the US government depends for support. The US started with the disadvantage of supporting the previous dictator regimes and never really recovered in the eyes of the newly liberated public opinion in the streets. Following the continuing Syria crisis and the attack on the American diplomatic building in Benghazi and the death of the US Ambassador and three colleagues, the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the region has looked increasingly weak.
Reuters reported on 22 October that the head of Saudi intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan had said that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would make a major shift away from the United States because of President Obama’s refusal to take military action against Syria over chemical weapons and his failure to support the rebels fighting the Bashar Al Assad forces. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declined a place for two years on the UN Security Council because of its failure to tackle the civil war in Syria.
The Kingdom’s impatience with the Obama administration’s perceived weakness in foreign policy is understandable. Saudi Arabia is also deeply suspicious of Iran as are all the Gulf States and fears its military might, particularly its ability to strike shipping in the Gulf with missiles and the possibility of it closing the Straits of Hormuz. The Gulf States do not have large national populations. However, this concern over Iran has hung over the Gulf for many years and no conflict with Iran has erupted yet. There is a large US Army base in Qatar and the US Third Fleet is based in Bahrain.
America’s prime concerns in the Middle East remain Israel and its security as President Obama emphasized recently and oil and energy security in the Gulf. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia still share vital interests.
The picture drawn by the NYT of National Security Adviser Susan Rice and her staff sticking post it notes on American interests and policy on her office wall seemed to suggest that the Obama Administration did not have clear foreign policy objectives for the President’s second term. Prince Bandar bin Sultan is not the only one expressing frustration. The Republican Party in Congress is making it almost impossible for the President to govern. If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the GCC states are now going to take a leading role in sorting conflicts in the region, strengthened by their stable finances and liquidity in a global recession, then it is possibly not before time.
What are the implications for Tunisia? The capture of Sheikh al-Khatib al-Idrissi the Emir of Ansar Al Sharia in Sidi Bouzid,as reported by the website Magharebia is good news, but there are fears of terrorist attacks spreading into the cities according to Magharebia .( Magharebia is supported by Africom the US forces organization formed to combat terrorism in Africa). Mr Ali Larayedh, the interim Prime Minister and Ennhada party member is still not clear when he will step down, or at least there are many conflicting statements. Saudi Arabia is not known for its enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf States continue to support the Egyptian government financially whilst America held back some military aid.
The official news agencies of Algeria (APS) and Morocco (MAP) report that Secretary of State John Kerry will visit their respective countries in early November. The settlement between the Moroccan government and the Algerian backed Polisario is still elusive and until it is solved the Maghreb Union is likely to remain in abeyance. Still, Secretary of State John Kerry is coming to the region despite the administration’s rationalization plans. There has been no announcement yet on whether he will visit Tunisia. In any case the US administration has made clear that countries in the region have to solve their political difficulties themselves . Tunisia needs to do this without further prolonged delay.