What Happened to the Obama Effect?

Iran’s election results are in. Although the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, disputes the results, it seems clear that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be the winner. In recent weeks, the campaign had grown increasingly vicious, with each side accusing the other of illegal behavior.  The late surge of the Mousavi campaign, combined with the surprising defeat of Hezbollah by a coalition of pro-Western parties in Lebanon, has led some to speculate about an Obama effect.

Perhaps the strongest advocate for the Obama effect has been Juan Cole. Blogging at Salon just after the Lebanese election, he wrote  “President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last Thursday may already have borne fruit. His call for political moderates in the Muslim world to fight extremism may have helped tip the weekend’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon to the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance.” Cole was careful to remind readers that local politics likely influenced the outcome of the election far more than Obama’s speech.

Daniel Drezner is a bit more blasé about the impact of Obama on elections in the Middle East. Certainly, the results from Iran raise questions about the potential of a change in U.S. leadership to affect electoral outcomes. But I think Stephen Walt’s analysis is probably correct. As he surmised,

It would be a mistake to give Barack all (or even most) of the credit for these developments, but I don’t think it’s completely unrelated either. By striking a fundamentally different tone towards all three countries (and the Arab/Muslim world in general), Obama hasn’t made reflexive anti-Americanism go away. But he has made it a less potent political weapon, so leaders like Ahmadinejad or Sheik Nasrallah don’t reap the same domestic benefits from America-bashing.

In other words, the Obama effect may not enough to determine the outcome of an election, it’s perhaps one of many influential factors in close elections, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

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