The race for the White House 2012: The mess in the Middle East
Whoever wins, he will have to deal with a series of interlocking problems in the Middle East. If Iran does not weaken under the international pressure to halt its nuclear enrichment program, Israel can be expected to renew its call for military action to target Iran's nuclear installations. Yet there is no consensus among military experts in Israel or the US on the ultimate efficacy of such action; there could be mass casualties; and Iran has threatened retaliation against Israeli, US and allied Arab facilities around the region. War with Iran, whether lead by Israel or the US, would also presage a new oil crisis with the inevitable repercussions for US consumers.
Judging by his stance hitherto, President Obama has no appetite for such an adventure and believes most Americans do not either. In a second term he could be even less amenable to the exhortations of Israeli politicians like Netanyahu than he was in his first term, when they clashed on the issue of Israeli settlement expansion. Given that history, Obama will probably judge a renewed attempt at Israeli-Palestinian peace-making a waste of time. Yet if he seeks a deal with Iran, that could trigger a crisis in US-Israeli relations and, in a worst case scenario, an Israeli pre-emptive strike that forces America into war anyway.
Governor Romney boasts a much warmer relationship with Israel than Obama. However, if he wins the presidency, Romney will hardly relish the prospect of taking on Iran in a military confrontation that could turn an already fractured region into an international war zone. So even Romney will no doubt looks for ways round the Iranian nuclear threat, such as more covert action, cyber-warfare and sabotage to delay and derail the Iranian nuclear program.
So, whether it is Romney or Obama in the White House next year, a US war with Iran is not inevitable but the fear of one will linger nonetheless. Meanwhile, the war underway in Syria, between the supporters of the Assad regime and their opponents, will continue to cause alarm in Washington for fear that Syria will slowly fall apart, with no decisive winners emerging, and the battlefield expanding from Lebanon in the west to Iraq and Iran in the east. Two of Syria's other neighbours, Jordan and Turkey, are looking to the Americans and/or NATO to help them contain the problem of refugees and rebel Syrian fighters on their borders, which is unsettling for both.
Syria is the cockpit of a regional confrontation, with Iran and the Gulf Arabs on opposite sides. The imperative for the next US administration will therefore be to try to contain the fallout and, maybe, ameliorate the humanitarian suffering. Neither Romney nor Obama can ignore the mess nor can they resolve it.
Whoever wins the election, they will have more to fear than to gain from US entanglements in the Middle East. Barack Obama already knows how US leverage has diminished in the region, Mitt Romney could be about to discover.