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Obama’s top foreign policy concerns for his second term

8 November 2012

With Barack Obama being returned to the White House, it’s worth considering what his key foreign policy challenges will be during the second term. I’ve outlined a few areas I think will dominate his thinking over the next four years.

1. Afghanistan and Pakistan

Obama has committed to withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This will be a far from smooth transition. As the number of US forces declines, expect to see a resurgence of the Taliban, greater instability across the country, and the accelerated erosion of Hamid Karzai’s authority. American frustrations will also heighten if the pace of ‘green on blue’ attacks (where Afghan National Security Force soldiers kill their NATO allies) continues growing at the rate it has in recent months.

Difficulties with Pakistan will also persist. As American influence in Afghanistan wanes, Islamabad is more than likely to step up its traditional support for the Afghan Taliban to achieve what it calls ‘strategic depth’ against India. Pakistan is also due to have parliamentary elections in three months and most of the frontrunners are campaigning on highly anti-American platforms. Any new administration will likely seek to renegotiate the terms of Obama’s highly prized drone programme which operates in Pakistan’s western territories.

2. North Africa

The political contours of last year’s uprisings are still far from settled. Islamists have been installed in Egypt and Tunisia while a more temperate administration is governing in Libya. There are few conclusions that can be drawn from this. Lawlessness in much of Libya and surrounding countries has resulted in the rise of armed factions whose ambitions are, as yet, still unclear. The murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi last September reveals the extent to which these groups pose a serious and ongoing threat to American interests in the region.

While al-Qaeda is struggling in AfPak (and is somewhat confined in Yemen), the number of armed Islamist groups in Africa has also proliferated following last year’s uprisings. Jihadists in Mali now control an area larger than the size of France. Meanwhile, groups coming from Nigeria to the Horn of Africa are able to exploit the vacuum left by the Arab Spring. These unintended consequences of the Arab Spring are sure to consume much of Obama’s time.

3. Iran


It is now beyond dispute that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear arsenal. What remains is how to diminish the threat posed by Ahmadinejad’s administration. Sanctions are clearly beginning to bite, with the normally inert mercantile classes in Tehran growing increasingly uneasy, but such an approach is unlikely to halt Iranian nuclear ambitions.

The Israelis will press Obama hard to impose red lines, while Washington will worry about the prospect of Netanyahu deciding to unilaterally attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The prospect of this remains remote – not least because Israel lacks the military capability needed to achieve its goals if acting alone – but don’t expect that to pare Netanyahu’s rhetoric. As both sides continue to sabre-rattle, Obama will be expected to step in and offer leadership.

4. The Arab-Israeli conflict

As American Presidents in their second term start to dream of their legacy, there are few things that excite them more than the idea of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama will be tempted by the prospect too, but is unlikely to drive the peace process forward in a meaningful way. Deeply distrusted by Israelis and Palestinians his administration lacks any original thinking about how to bring both sides to the table. The stalemate will continue.

5. Syria

There is little doubt Obama let Syria burn while concentrating on his re-election. The White House simply wasn’t prepared to intervene and risk a confrontation that would comprise the election. Now that the election is over, expect to see greater engagement with the armed factions operating inside the country – and a diminished role for the Syrian National Council which is mostly exiled and not on the ground.

Indeed, it is hardly surprising that within hours of Obama’s re-election William Hague announced the British government will start talking to the armed opposition. Turkey, too, has hardened its position over the last 24 hours, deploying more sophisticated weapons along its border and calling for a greater use of force against Assad. Diplomatic solutions are still being explored with behind-the-scenes offers of safe passage offered to Assad and his family, but if the bloodshed continues then calls for a No Fly Zone will become irresistible.

6. China

The world’s second largest economy is currently in the process of transitioning power to a new generation of leaders. Anointed in the Great Hall of the People during the Communist Party Congress, it was confirmed that Xi Jinping will shortly be installed as China’s next President. Yet little is known of his personal views and Obama is left guessing whether Jinping’s China will present itself as a friend or foe.

Whatever path it pursues, Beijing’s growing economic clout coupled with its expansion – in both political and economic terms – into Central Africa and South Asia, means America will be paying close attention to Jinping’s policies.

7. Russia

Putin is back in the Kremlin but with diminished powers. Unpopular at home, he is unlikely to be as assertive abroad as he would like. Instead, Russian power will be limited to regional affairs which the Americans are likely to watch closely but will not be immediately affected by. Obama is less concerned with Russia than his counterparts, seeking gentle engagement and compromise where appropriate.

8. Managing the global economy

In many respects this was the Republicans’ election to lose. Few incumbents have successfully clung to power with soaring unemployment and a still badly bruised economy. This will take centre stage in Obama’s second term, with the global fallout from the economic crisis continuing to influence his thinking. Expect the White House to keep a watching brief on Europe’s debt crisis and potential disintegration of the Eurozone. They’ll also be keeping a close eye on instability in the Gulf and North Africa which could affect oil prices, imperilling the prospect of economic growth.

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  • victor67

    “Its now beyond doubt that Iran is pursuing a nuclear arsenal” Is it? Not according to IAEA. They said it was inconclusive that Iran is intent on getting the bomb.

  • HooksLaw

    Syria burn? I strongly suspect that the USA ws giving covert support to the rebels as i suspect we are. i do not see what more can be done. We cannot invade and any no fly zone would be expensive, difficult – and dangerous.

    It is incumbent on lefties to say how they would help the rebels though, because they protested the invasion of iraq and said there were alternatives. can they step forward now and give us some on Syria?

  • Baron

    Reading the list, what a legacy of the last four years. Arghhh. The messiah might as well pack up, go home, the world’ll be better for it.

    Also, you reckon, Shiraz, Obama will be ‘paying close attention to Jinping’s policies’, do you? As close as the attention he paid to the Arabic nations’ policies in his last term, and as successfully?

  • TomTom

    I think you are very wrong on Russia and hope your miscalculations are not shared by Washington.

  • Kevin

    The murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi last September

    Is this the first time this murder has been mentioned on CH?

    Talk about letting burn while concentrating on re-election.

    • HooksLaw

      Grow up.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Point 7:

    If Russia loses Tartus, watch Greece and Turkey playing the US-Nato and EU off against Russian suggestions of a berth in their respective countries treaty obligations or no.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      The Turks hate the Russians and always have. That’s one thing about a centuries old spite, you know it’s never going to go away. Through thick and thin, commie and ottoman and everything in between… the Turks will hate the Roooshians. And the feeling is mutual, I gather.

      Now the Greeks, they might be tempted. Which is fine. Let the Russians bail out the Greeks.

      • Hexhamgeezer

        Agreed. A Turk?Rus bedsharing is unlikely but waving the possibility would have the minor benefits of annoying the Greeks (btw who do they hate the most?) and introduce a new ‘incentive’ to allow EU accession. Does NATO membership bar you from ‘temporary’ hosting of Russian hardware?

  • Augustus

    Obama never showed any willingness in his first four years in office to make any
    real compromises with Republicans. If gridlock continues on the domestic front,
    the President, who has always been anxious to enhance his legacy with major accomplishments, may look abroad to do it. That could well put Israel
    in his sights. There is no evidence, however, that the Palestinian Authority has any real
    interest in a final agreement with Israel, the so-called two state solution,
    since it would likely require the Palestinians to give up future claims against
    Israel, and give up on the right of return. U.S. pressure on Israel might then
    do little other than to further exacerbate tensions between the two countries. Given his background in the Muslim world, and his past close relationships with many people who are, or were, bitter foes of
    the State of Israel, that agenda could take a darker turn with regard to Israel, and seek to
    fundamentally alter the historic relationship between the two countries. It is even thinkable that any U.S. deal with Iran over its nuclear programme would be at Israel’s expense.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Obama can’t conclude any foreign treaty unless the US Senate approves it, by a 2/3 vote.

      Now, the Congress might give him a wink and a nod and permission to do a few extra-Constitutionals, as in Libya, but even that tactic is falling out of favor these days, now that ambassadors are being murdered there.

      • HooksLaw

        What foreign treaties?

    • victor67

      So Augustus my prediction about Obama re-election was sound. We shall see now whether he will put the squeeze on Bibi and the greater Israel project.

      It would also be good to hear your thoughts on Abu Mazan speech stating Palestine is now within the 67 borders and that while he should have a right to visit his familys old home in Israel that does not give him the right to live there. This caused a lot of anger among the more zealous Palestinians as it questions the automatic right of return. Tzpi livni welcomed the comments.
      This may be real evidence that you speak of and must be a real worry to the Israeli’s that a settlement may be possible.

      • Augustus

        The PA doesn’t have a defined territory, but rather disputed territory. There has never been a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank or Gaza. Nor has there ever been a border between Israel and the West Bank, but just a temporary cease-fire line explicitly defined as such. As for ‘giving up the right of return’, what about past statements on the one hand and actions on the other? And remember, it was Netanyahu who declared support for the two-state solution in such a way that no other leader has done before him: he froze construction in Judea and Samaria for nine months. It is the Palestinians that consistently refuse to give up their right of return, and Abbas actually denied that he gave up this right. Any thoughts that significant progress had been made regarding Abbas’ approach, by leftists in Israel, can safely be regarded as virtual reality.

  • Curnonsky

    “Baroness” Ashton will doubtless step into the gap and save the planet.

  • dorothy wilson

    And, apart from all that, there’s nothing to worry about so we can all relax.

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