As the national conventions of the two main political parties in the United States grab the media’s attention, the Arab world is beginning to consider the importance of the choice that American voters will make in two months’ time. Four years ago many in the Arab world were deeply moved by the success of Barack Hussein Obama, a young African-American with Muslim family roots. His campaign of hope and his slogan of "Yes We Can" captured the Arab imagination; a similar spirit of hope and empowerment later galvanized Arab youth and Arab citizens in the uprisings of the Arab Spring. And almost all Arabs — conservative and liberal, religious and secular, Sunni and Shiite — were eager to see the departure of George W. Bush.

Today the situation is different. The United States is less omnipresent than it was four years ago; the region is overwhelmed with its own internal and regional crises; and, opinion is divided for and against the current US president. Indeed, many of the region’s surviving state elites — particularly in the Arab Gulf monarchies — have found President Obama too soft on Iran and too sympathetic to democratic uprisings and to Muslim Brotherhood parties that win elections.

Paul Salem
Salem was director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. He works and publishes on the regional and international relations of the Middle East as well as issues of political development and democratization in the Arab world.
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Even in the US, expert opinion is divided as to how much profound change a Mitt Romney presidency or an Obama second term will bring to foreign policy in general, and Middle East policy in particular. There is no doubt that this presidential election is being fought largely on domestic issues.  If Obama is threatened in the polls it is because of the slow economy and a high unemployment rate, not because of successes or failures abroad. Voters generally give him high marks in foreign policy: He restored America’s standing and relations in the world after the isolation of the Bush years, withdrew troops from Iraq, set a 2014 date for withdrawal from Afghanistan, killed bin Laden, and escalated a drone war against al-Qaeda — and there have been no terrorist attacks on the US on his watch. Romney’s campaign has congratulated Obama on killing bin Laden but faults him for being too friendly with Russia and China, too lenient toward Iran, too hard on Israel, and too lax in allowing a decline of US power.

If Obama wins a second term, his policy in the Middle East is not likely to change dramatically. The pattern of diminishing American presence, represented by the US withdrawal from Iraq in his first term, will continue with troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in his second term — albeit while continuing the targeted drone campaign against suspected al-Qaeda groups in the region. In North Africa, he will work with the new governments of the post-revolutionary states and continue to build bridges with the dominant Muslim Brotherhood parties, encouraging their shift toward pragmatism and moderation.

Events in Syria and Iran, however, threaten to force a change of policy on him. In Syria, Obama has called for Assad’s departure but resisted pressures to engage in arming the opposition or imposing a no fly zone; it is possible that the conflict in Syria develops in such a way — as was the case in Libya in 2011 — as to force Obama to reconsider. In Iran, after his initial overtures fell flat, the president assembled a global coalition to impose strong sanctions. But neither talks nor sanctions have apparently altered Iran’s approach to its nuclear program; an Israeli attack on Iran, or sudden developments in the Iranian nuclear file, could force Obama, in his second term, to consider military action — an option that he has always kept as a last resort.

Towards the GCC, he will maintain the United States’ commitment to regional security and the free flow of oil and gas, and will continue to encourage states in the region to implement gradual political reforms in order to avoid the fate of other Arab autocracies. Although he failed in the Mideast peace process, the issue is still close to his heart, and in his second term he might make another attempt at a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab talks.

Although Romney himself seems quite pragmatic, a Romney administration could return many neo-conservatives to the foreign policy team. Indeed, the current republican party no longer has influential moderates — such as James Baker, former President George H.W. Bush, George Shultz, etc. — and is dominated by its ideological right wing. Romney’s campaign has emphasized that the US must remain the dominant power in the world, must rebuild its military supremacy, and must use that power to set the global agenda and maintain the international order. While that is ambitious talk, the Romney White House would have to deal with the difficult realities of maintaining a massive military while facing gaping fiscal deficits, and discover how hard it really is to impose American diktats in a world which is multipolar and in which American — and Western — power is clearly fading.

In the Middle East, there will likely be some continuity and some change. Romney too is committed to withdrawal from Afghanistan, although possibly on a slower timetable. The drone wars, which Obama inherited from Bush, will continue. And Romney has committed to helping countries that have thrown off dictatorship to consolidate their transitions to democracy. But Romney is far more skeptical than Obama of Muslim Brotherhood parties, and could end up putting America on a collision course with newly elected Islamist governments in the region.

On Syria and Iran, a Romney administration would be more aggressive than the current one. In Syria, Romney has so far declined to support a no-fly zone but has leaned toward arming the opposition.  With Iran, he has yet to call for military action, but Romney is more likely than Obama to sympathize with an Israeli strike or move toward military action. On the peace process, he has reprised former President George W. Bush’s position that the process is not an American priority, and that what matters is American support for Israel’s security and its military edge in the region.

Indeed, George W. Bush came to the White House in 2001 as an apparently moderate pragmatist with an overwhelmingly domestic agenda; but when faced with the events of September 11, his administration drove the United States into large-scale adventures in the region. Similarly, the rhetoric of Romney’s party along with ill-considered positions toward the complex realities of the Middle East could plunge the region into deeper tension and confrontation.

Despite America’s declining global dominance, observers in the Arab world are well aware that the Middle East will still be much affected by the outcome of the US election. While most people in the Arab countries would probably favour an Obama second term, there are certainly some among the old ruling elites of the region — fearful of Iran and the rise of democratic Islamists — who would welcome a Republican victory.

This article was originally published in Al-Monitor.