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How Will Obama's Reconfigured National Security Team Approach the Middle East?

January 2, 2013 ·

Watch for more "smart power."

Watch for more "smart power."

While President Obama has been battling the Republicans in Congress over the looming fiscal crisis, his new administration and national security team are taking shape with diverse consequences especially on US foreign policy in the Middle East. President Obama has nominated veteran Senator John Kerry to be his secretary of State to replace Hillary Clinton. It is also reported that Obama is considering former republican Senator Chuck Hagel to head either the department of defense or the CIA. Both men, if confirmed, will be important in shaping the president's foreign policy and are aligned with his political vision for America and its role in the world especially its relation with the new emerging Arab World.

UN ambassador Susan Rice who had withdrawn her nomination for the Secretary of State position over the Bengazi controversy, and was Obama's first choice for the job, will either keep her current job as the US ambassador at the UN, or as many Washington insiders point out will get the National Security Advisor post as a consolation prize.

Kerry, Hagel and Rice are known to be proponents of using Smart Power, which has been the hallmark of the first Obama administration, and that used a combination of hard and soft power by utilizing diplomacy, capacity and coalition building, political pressure, and the projection of military power to achieve US policy objectives.

Choosing Senator Kerry to head the State Department means that President Obama will not depart from the basic tenets of his foreign policy especially in the Middle East. Senator Kerry, with over 30 years of foreign policy experience at the Senate, is known to advocate negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and his views on this subject do not include using the US military war machine as an instrument of foreign policy. In addition, Kerry's views on the Arab Israeli conflict are not far off from those of the president.

In fact Kerry's stature in Washington will lend President Obama a much-needed political cushion to deal with his nemesis Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to jump start the so called “peace-process”.

An indication of a new approach of the US policy in region was evident when Mr. Obama sent Secretary Clinton to the Middle East during the latest Gaza war last November in order to stop the Israeli planned ground invasion in its tracks.

During the war in Gaza, President Obama, feeling much more confident after his reelection for a second term, made sure to deliver a humiliating defeat to Netanyahu by forcing him to stop his planned ground invasion of Gaza.

To do that, President Obama along with his senior advisors first made public statements and pronouncements supporting Israel's position and its right to defend itself against Hamas and its missiles. No word was mentioned during this brief war about the plight of Palestinians or about the brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza that took the lives of scores of innocent Palestinian civilians.

In this approach Obama first fortified his domestic standing as being unequivocally pro-Israel and better silenced his would-be critics, including Netanyahu himself, than had he charted a more balanced course that spoke of both sides of the conflict instead of Israel alone. With his domestic front is safe and secured, President Obama sent Secretary Clinton to forcefully prevent Netanyahu from acting on his threats to invade Gaza which would have inflamed the Arab World, especially the new Egypt against the US.

This quiet and clever strategy seemed to have worked better for Obama than his former approach of appearing to be publicly pressuring Israel to give up its illegal settlement-building in the Palestinian territories and pressuring it to engage in meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians.

Although it is unclear whether president Obama will push for a Palestinian-Israeli direct or indirect talks in 2013 or later given the weakness of the Palestinian side and the instability in the two most important Arab states, Egypt and Syria.

In the meantime, the reported choice of former Nebraska republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who is known to criticize Israeli policies in the region and also criticized its lobby in Washington, to be his Secretary of Defense will likely solidify the president's positions on Iran, and Palestine-Israel by choosing his security team with strong Washington experience and not afraid to speak their minds. That said, however, Mr. Obama is facing his first test on the Middle East as the right-wing pro-Israeli groups are mounting a vicious campaign the thwart the nomination of Mr. Hagel on the grounds of his past remarks regarding Israel, Hamas, and Iran. In 2006 Hagel described in a newspaper interview a “Jewish Lobby” that is “intimating a lot of people.”

The final piece in Obama's national security team is ambassador Susan Rice who is very close to the president and is expected to be rewarded with the National Security Advisor post. Rice put her own political future on the line by defending the president on the Bengazi terrorist attack while the Obama reelection campaign was entering its dangerous close-race zone. Rice is known to be a proponent of using smart power that will utilize the use of the entire components of US national power -- diplomacy, military, scientific and cultural -- to achieve the US strategic objectives around the world.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: aliyounes98@gmail.com and on Twitter at @clearali.