One of the tensest periods of the Middle East political cycle such as it is, are the dying months of a second term US president. Right now, there are just 85 days left of the current presidency. It ratchets up uncertainties and creates opportunities for those parties who seek to profit from American electoral distractions and a President leaking authority day-by-day.
European diplomats in particular become edgy hoping to survive this transition and herald a new administration that is engaged and credible. Imagine if the 20th amendment had never been passed in 1933, these terrified statesmen would still have to wait until 4 March for a new President to be inaugurated.
Go back three years, think of the virtual shut down of the US government and the odds were that Barack Obama would have had a long run-in as a lame duck president. Yet the reality is that even in his last few years he has achieved some notable results not least on Iran and Cuba. It is Congress that has proved incapable of halting much of the White House’s program and whose popularity has dipped.
A significant economic recovery has helped the president as well as the paucity of high-quality candidates for either Democrats and Republics, so Obama’s approval ratings have approached a healthy 52 percent akin to Ronald Reagan’s. This is a fair achievement given that the US is so clearly divided and many Donald Trump supporters do not even think he is American.
Remarkably he is a genuine asset to the Clinton campaign not a liability as George W Bush was to Mitt Romney in 2012. Bush was a marginal force, close to a political irrelevance in his last year of office with just a 27 percent approval rating in his final month in office. So as lame ducks go (technically he only becomes one on 9 November when his successor is elected), Obama is still able to walk the walk if not run.
The clock is ticking both for Obama to ring fence his legacy and for actors in the Middle East to rearrange the pieces in their favor before recalibrating their relations with Washington in the New YearChris Doyle
Other than being predominantly foreign policy oriented, there are typically a few core trends at the end of a Presidential term.
Firstly, the outgoing American President wants to procure his legacy and ensure it is not undermined. For Barack Obama, this would include the restoration of ties with Cuba, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and of course, in the Middle East, the Iran nuclear deal. Ensuring Hillary Clinton succeeds him is perhaps the most vital ingredient to permitting all these to survive. The recent climate change deal with China will also require a Clinton Presidency as Trump would enjoy shredding that agreement.
Secondly, there is an ungainly race to wrap up unfinished business. For Bill Clinton this was notably the Oslo Accords and the strenuous effort to produce a full and final peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, something Obama has failed miserably at.
Obama has several issues he would love to put to rest. The closure of Guantanamo will not happen; guns will not be controlled nor will he have achieved a complete exit from the Middle East. Yet should things go reasonably to plan in Iraq, Mosul may be ISIS-free by the end of the year, although time may be too short for the recapture of Raqqa in Syria even though the US Defense Secretary has announced that an operation may be launched shortly.
No doubt the White House would love to add the capture or killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, to that of Osama bin Laden as a fitting coda to his era. Still it will not be by any measure the destruction of ISIS.
Middle East actors
Thirdly, actors in the Middle East eye up opportunities created by a perceived vacuum in Washington. The most egregious and cynical example of this in recent times was Operation Cast Lead, when Israel initiated a 22-day bombing campaign of Gaza, ending it most conveniently on 18 January 2009, two days before Barack Obama was inaugurated. The new President was mute on the issue. A repeat is not impossible and Palestinians would be wise not to provide Israel with the slightest excuse to take action over the next quarter.
Arguably this is being played out now not least in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Obama’s authority domestically may not have plummeted but internationally rival powers see things differently. Vladimir Putin of Russia has spent the last year confident that the 44th President would not be an obstacle to his military intervention in Syria no matter how intense Russian attacks were.
For all the bluster at the United Nations no genuine pressure has been brought to bear on Moscow. Obama may rue Libya as his greatest failure but Syria might top most observers’ lists by some distance.
But Russia is not the only state to have grown more assertive. Turkey’s military forays into both Syria and Iraq demonstrate that President Erdogan aims to ensure Turkish core aims are met, notably by frustrating Kurdish aspirations at home and abroad.
Yet on 20 January 2017, the 45th President may not be quite so compliant. The clock is ticking both for Obama to ring fence his legacy and for actors in the Middle East to rearrange the pieces in their favor before recalibrating their relations with Washington in the New Year. It will not be a quiet 85 days.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.