By Rushdi Siddiqui, Global Head of Islamic Finance at Thomson Reuters
President Barack “Peace” — as no new wars in last four years — Obama may be less beholding to special interests during the second term. He will now want to leave a legacy behind, both domestically and on foreign policy. However, his legacy will now be held hostage to the court of public opinion.
The re-election of Obama, both on popular (50 per cent to 48 per cent) and electoral (303 to 206) votes, is a message sent by the American people to work smarter (not only harder), longer, faster, and with partners, to “fix” what is broken, “mend” what needs fixing, “push” forward what is working and a “probation” to try new initiatives.
The post-election comments for the peaceful president from world leaders, from secular to spiritual, have been positive, glowing, and extending an open hand to assist in the hard work ahead as all of us are in the same “boat” called humanity wanting dignity.
In the second term, Obama needs to focus on Asia, generally, before China’s once-in-decade political make-over starts execution (no pun intended), and possibly, a leading Muslim country, specifically, as an example a country which closely represents US ethnic, religious, and cultural diversification and “tolerance.”
Maybe it’s time for the president and the US to find and get behind an “Egypt of Asia”, as the oil and (perceived) regional influence of certain countries of recent past did not pan out as expected.
Will there be peace and stability in the Middle East within the next four years? It may be easier to have an Olympic gold medal winner in badminton from Malaysia than find the elusive peace in a region of piecemeal countries united and, yes, divided by tribalism.
The omnipotence of the US as the voice of reason and calming stability backed by her economic and military might has been downgraded (let’s leave S&P out of the equation) by the misadventures of George “Bring it on” Bush and the systemic risk to global economy by the sub-prime fiasco (also under George Bush), and the corresponding rise of the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and newcomer South Africa. Clearly, the power has shifted away from the US. Where it has shifted to is another issue, as it’s not debt battered and financially bleeding Europe.
The Arab Spring flushed out the regional diminishing US influence, including the unflinching support of entrenched poster child ally, Hosni Mubarak/Egypt, a benevolent dictator.
However, the Middle East remains important mainly because of black gold, oil, and the havoc a price escalation can play on industries and capital markets in an already weakened global economy.
The Middle East also remains a region of “unknown knowns”, composed of a complicated jigsaw puzzle of Egypt (controlled chaos), Libya (chaos), Lebanon (proxy chaos), Palestinian/Israel (two-state solution), Syria (civil war), Yemen (drones), Iran (nuclear), Al-Qaeda (stateless terrorism) and so on.
Although not mentioned on any geographical or topical defining map, Pakistan and Afghanistan are an extension of the region for the United States’ earlier intervention and on-going challenges. To put it differently, “they broke it, and have to buy it,” and with no return policy.
Thus, it will take more than four years of precision focus, shuttling negations, wisdom patience, printing press of money and, possibly, divine intervention to have an acceptable “normality” i.e. absence of conflict, not necessarily peace.
The primary focus will continue on the Middle East, but, much like five-year business plans looking for new business opportunities in different geographies, the US needs to remove the “horse blinders” and see the Muslim world not as one, but as many countries with rich histories, cultures and influences. Thus, oil/gas reserves, military bases and large domestic population will continue to be important, but possibly not outcome determinative.
To make Obama’s second term more interesting on foreign policy, vis-à-vis the 57-country Muslim world, selected Muslim countries need to “pitch” themselves as representative of democratic and religious principles (is this possible?). There are three Muslim countries in the G-20, Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, and these are only a starting point.
Other countries worthy of consideration, based upon metrics-like population, GDP growth and 2020/2030 vision, capital markets, democratic principles, OIC influence, etc include Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria and Malaysia. As mentioned above, the court of public opinion will also matter for Obama, hence, from the above-mentioned destinations, the American public has a “challenging” opinion about these countries, except one.
The Malaysian elections are around the corner next year, and the incumbent and opposition can expand their platform to pitch about Malaysia to both the White House and Congress.
Winning the Nobel Peace Prize early in his first term is a tough benchmark act to follow for the second term for any democratically elected leader. His second term may be an extension of hope that transforms to trust that brings change, hence, actually earning the Prize that he accepted in the first term.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.