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Making and (un)Keeping Foreign Policy Promises

President Barack Obama Remarks at University of Cairo. June 4, 2009.

Yesterday marked the third anniversary since President Barack Obama delivered a landmark speech at the University of Cairo in which he promised forge a closer relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. On June 4, 2009, President Obama said:

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

Yet, three years later, hopes for better relations have been dashed. UVa Edward R. Stettinius Professor of Politics William B. Quandt placed the anniversary in perspective for Riding the Tiger:

Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 raised expectations among many in the Middle East that they were about to see significant change from the widely disliked policies of the George W. Bush era. But along with the hope went considerable skepticism. Many admired the rhetoric, but were skeptical about real policy changes. Three years later their doubts seem largely justified, especially on the sensitive Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Indeed, a recent poll of Egyptians finds that 68 percent of respondents hold a “very unfavorable” view of the United States, and another 17 percent hold a “somewhat unfavorable” view. Sixty-six percent of respondents said that brokering Middle East Peace by Israel withdrawing to the 1967 boarder and creating a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem would most improve their views of the United States. The poll also finds that 73 percent prefer Mitt Romney as the next American president, while only 25 percent prefer President Obama.

While Romney has not given a major address on his approach to the region, he has gone after Obama’s record in the Middle East in media interviews. Most recently, President Obama has been criticized for remaining largely silent on the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process and on the elections in Egypt, for not addressing the rising political violence in Yemen and South Sudan, and for not intervening to prevent mass atrocities in Syria. Yet, it is worth recalling that in an election year it is difficult for any president to have high profile involvement in many areas. Everything is subordinated to the campaign.

An historical example on American Middle East policy is illustrative. Even though signs of imminent conflict were present, President Richard Nixon and his administration did not take significant action on or devote significant attention to the Middle East in 1972 because it was a presidential election year. Nearly one year after the election, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel during Yom Kippur. Taylor Brown, recipient of the Miller Center’s 2011-2012 Undergraduate Research Award, conducted archival research on the 1973 October War and presented his findings at the Miller Center last Friday. Brown argues the Yom Kippur War was a critical event for understanding the framework of the American role in Arab-Israeli negotiations from 1973 onward. I would extend Brown’s argument to posit that the war was a critical event in reshaping President Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy towards Arab-Israeli relations by changing their previously held beliefs that Sadat was not serious about reaching a peace deal with Israel; that stability in the Middle East was assured by Israeli military preponderance; that Arab oil could not be used as a tool to pressure the U.S.; and that Soviet influence had reached its limits in the region. The war essentially snapped the Nixon administration out of its complacency on the Middle East and it became a top priority for Kissinger who became an active mediator in getting the parties to negotiate.

This example illustrates a couple of relevant points for the present. First, a president, particularly one in his first term, is constrained by the election cycle. In an election year, a president can only devote so much time to any given issue, especially as campaigning consumes increasingly more time, energy and resources. The president is likely to focus on issues that matter most in terms of electoral rewards, and foreign affairs just aren’t as salient to American voters. Thus, the economy and domestic issues will trump foreign policy in an election year. Nonetheless, foreign policy successes can be used to demonstrate leadership during the campaign and certainly if a window of opportunity opens, a president will seize it.

Second, a president comes to office having made many campaign pledges, but existing institutions, policies and events can alter even the best-laid plans. In addition, the president has to contend with domestic politics, which can also interfere with his policy designs. Furthermore, events beyond the control of the president can affect policymaking both at home and abroad. Even if he is the “most powerful leader of the free world,” the president really doesn’t have all that much control over foreign affairs or decisions made in other capitols. Just as President Nixon and Henry Kissinger couldn’t predict Sadat’s war and how it would change the administration’s policy toward the Middle East, neither could President Obama (nor experts or presidential advisers on the region, for that matter) have predicted the Arab Spring and the effects it would have across the Middle East.

 

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