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Does Second Term Give Obama Foreign 'Flexibility'?

Nov 7, 2012
Originally published on November 11, 2012 8:34 am
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit



Now, we want to turn to the international arena. The race for the White House last night had people around the world glued to their TVs and radios and reaction is pouring in from political figures around the globe.

Here is a small sample of what we've been hearing, starting with a spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry.

JENAN MOUSSA: We look forward to advancing our existing strong, broad, multifaceted partnership with the United States.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Foreign language spoken)

ZINDZI MANDELA: I think that he's the symbolism of having a black man occupy the highest office is something that can make my children very inspirational.

MARTIN: You heard from Jenan Moussa Zi(ph). As we said, he's a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, and Zindzi Mandela, the daughter of Nelson Mandela.

Joining us to talk about what a second Obama term might mean globally is Abderrahim Foukara. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He's been kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to help us understand what's happening in the world, especially the Middle East, and he's with us once again now.

Abderrahim, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.


MARTIN: Now, what sense do you have so far about the international reaction to the president's reelection? You know, in 2008, many people remember that, when he, you know, traveled overseas, it was as if The Beatles and Springsteen and Elvis were all touring together. I mean, there was just this tremendous outpouring. Is there a similar reaction this time or is it something different?

FOUKARA: Like you said, in 2008, there was the element of the phenomenal novelty of it, having for the first time, an African-American president in the United States with all the implications that people around the world read into that, as far as their daily lives were concerned.

I think the phenomenal novelty has worn off somehow. This time, it has been replaced by relief because, in the Middle East, for example, Romney - a lot of people in the Middle East heard in his positions echoes of somebody they didn't particularly like in the past and that is George Bush, the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, although it was a reaction to 9/11. And, with reports flying around that about 17 or 19 of Romney's advisors had served under President Bush, he raised a lot of concern.

So what people feel, I think, is relief that Romney was not elected. It does not necessarily mean enthusiasm for another four years of Barack Obama by definition.

MARTIN: Has the world's regard for Mr. Obama made any difference, though? Are there any areas where you could argue that the regard in which he has been held, even if it's muted, has made a difference in advancing U.S. interests or in, you know, advancing, you know, global interests?

FOUKARA: I think that there are a lot of people who have enormous regard for Barack Obama as the president of the United States, despite all his failures, as they would say, over the last four years. Some of his supporters, for example, say, yes. We do support - we like the fact that he's been reelected, but we don't like the fact that he was too quick to throw the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, under the bus, for example. You hear that criticism in places such as the Persian Gulf, as the Iranians call it, or the Arab Gulf, as the Arabs call it.

The way that he's handled Israel and Palestine, I think, continues to rub a lot of people in the Middle East the wrong way. Remember when Netanyahu paid him his first visit after he took office in 2008 and they came out of the meeting. Obama said, I want Israel, Palestine to be top of the agenda. Netanyahu said, no. I want Iran to be top of the agenda. And a lot of people feel that, despite all the talk about friction between Obama and Netanyahu, a lot of people feel that, in the end, Obama did kowtow to pressures from Netanyahu to actually make Iran top of the agenda.

How to deal with Iran, there's a lot of relief now that Romney has not been elected because a lot of people feel, at least in that part of the world, that had Romney become president, it would have taken the United States into war against Iran. Knowing that, at least now, Obama keeps saying that he still sees diplomacy as the best way to deal with the Iranians.

MARTIN: What are your sources telling you or telling your correspondents about what the president sees as his foreign policy priorities in the second term? You know, you heard our domestic analyst, Corey Ealons, former communications advisor in the Obama administration, saying that, you know, the second term is where - if I can put this colloquially - you know, the president gets loose. You know, he tacks back to whatever his natural instincts are because he doesn't have the pressures of reelection. Is there something in the international realm that, you know, analysts, your sources say the president is looking to do without the pressures of running for reelection?

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, if you start with Russia, there was that famous occurrence where he was with Putin and he didn't know that the mic was still on and he said to Putin, you know, you got to cut me some slack. Once I - if I'm reelected, I'll be able to deal with you in a way that is much more to your liking when it comes to the reduction of nuclear weapons and such.

There is conflict with Russia in Syria, evidently. Russia remains one of Bashar Assad's staunchest supporters and the fear now - I think, if I were Bashar Assad, I would definitely be giving a lot more credence to what's been said over the last few weeks, that if Barack Obama wins a second term, he would feel under less pressure to actually support - give more support to the armed opposition in Syria and, therefore, to take a tougher stance on the position that the Russians have been taking.

To what extent that's actually going to be possible, I don't know because he still needs the support of Russia in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue.

MARTIN: As a matter of nuance, though, I don't know that he said, I'll deal with this in a manner more to your liking. I think he said he'd have more flexibility. I do think there is a difference there, just as a point of clarification. Can you talk a little more, though, about some of the other places that are of concern to the United States and the world in the footprint of, you know, both China and Russia in sort of the time we have left? What do you expect there?

FOUKARA: Well, I think what we've heard from the - first of all, Barack Obama has been saying that he does acknowledge that the United States - that the status of the United States globally faces challenges and he does concede that the United States is no longer the superpower. It is a very important super power, but there are other powers, such as China. And I think what we've been hearing, at least so far, since the announcement of his reelection, from the Chinese is that they do feel a sense of relief that Barack Obama will be the president rather than Romney.

Romney had taken a tough stance on China and saying that - he called them names, particularly, that they did not like in terms of their trade policy, vis-a-vis the United States.

I think that most of the challenges that Barack Obama faces - most of the big challenges that he faces are actually in the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring changing political forces in places such as Egypt, which is a very important U.S. ally, Iran, Israel, Palestine. But I think he will also face some challenges much closer to the United States in Latin America, specifically.

MARTIN: OK. Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.