William B. Quandt, who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations, noted that in his first term Obama focused on major domestic issues like the economy and health care, and after grappling with Iraq and Afghanistan became more skeptical about re-making the world. Nonetheless, Quandt observed, the Middle East—first, the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, and second, what to do about the bloodshed in Syria—will inevitably be on Obama’s second-term agenda. His advice to the White House: “Anyone who has watched the previous administrations must notice that if you are to have a successful second term, you cannot wait to the last year to make your moves.”
In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Obama faces two sides that are internally divided and have not made a “definitive conclusion” that they want a peaceful two-state solution, according toDaniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. “Yet,” he said, “each time the Israelis and Palestinians have sat down for negotiations, they’ve made substantial progress.” If the parties can be persuaded to reach mutually agreeable concessions rather than perpetuate conflict, Kurtzer added, “they might need help in establishing a vision of what the outcome might be like. In this, the U.S. can help.” Kurtzer and Quandt are co-authors of a new book, The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011.
Does Obama have an overall philosophy that can be used to predict future actions? “That is hard to pin down, because he is pragmatic rather than dogmatic,” said William A. Rugh, former American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. But Rugh said Obama clearly favors the use of diplomacy over force, direct engagement over confrontation, and multilateralism over unilateralism. In Obama’s responses to the uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen, Rugh argued, U.S. strategic interests—such as a military base in the former, and the fight against Al-Qaeda in the latter—trumped democracy promotion.