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Dangerous world awaits President Obama's second term

As US President Barack Obama steps away from an exhausting campaign trail for the last time, he is confronted in his final term by a number of issues which refuse to fade away.

Nathan Smith
Thu, 08 Nov 2012

Foreign policy was not a great causal factor in the re-election of United States President Barack Obama.

During the final of three televised debates the two candidates running for the White House sounded remarkably similar in their foreign policies.

Mr Obama became more hawkish as his first term progressed, even as his predecessor’s wars have ground to an end or are set to terminate in the next few years.

Campaign promises aside, he quickly discovered the constraints of office did not allow unlimited power or unlimited choice as he may have dreamed.

His first term was characterised and constrained by the scourge of international terrorism and President George W. Bush’s reactions to that threat during his eight years in power.

Moving into his second term, Mr Obama may be able to stretch his legs politically.

Many of those people in his first administration were remnants of Mr Bush’s final term. The ability to replace them with others more closely aligned with the president’s policies and ideology has now arrived.

The law of unintended consequences

US presidents have very little unilateral domestic power. The constitution specifically makes it impossible for one person to have too much strength at home.

They have always been given far more control over foreign policy. But there is always the potential for unexpected events – and no more so than in foreign policy.

George W. Bush was getting ready to court the Pacific nations in much the same way as recently proposed by the Obama administration when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened in New York.

His entire presidential term was shaped irretrievably by tragic events that completely blindsided his administration.

Somewhat equally, Mr Obama did not see the Arab Spring coming and now deals with a spiralling security situation throughout the Arab and North African world.

The on-going civil unrest in Syria and Libya were unexpected, and by some accounts almost lost him the recent election because of poor public perception in dealing with the problems.

Pressing foreign policy concerns

As President Obama steps away from the exhausting campaign trail for the last time, he is confronted in his final term by a number of issues which refuse to fade away.

US relations with China, in particular, and Pacific nations are generally tenuous at best.

While a shooting war with China is unlikely during the next four years, Washington will be spending more time in the Pacific, creating greater potential for conflict.

As seen recently around scattered islands in the South China Sea, a small skirmish has the potential to escalate quickly.

Washington and Beijing, the two largest players in the Pacific, benefit from an amiable relationship. But if history is any guide, the drive to control geography for one’s own needs places even friendly countries at odds.

As the two largest military forces on the planet mingle closer, the need for cool heads is vital.

In another part of the globe, wisdom and rationality are needed in equal measure regarding Iran.

US forces have slowly built a substantial military presence in the Persian Gulf, largely unnoticed by media. Economic sanctions are causing the Iranian rial to drastically depreciate and international rhetoric is appearing more militaristic as weeks pass.

Iran a rational player

Tehran has made it clear Iran will not cancel its nuclear ambitions, no matter how much the pressure is increased. Yet it will probably not cross Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Red Line” and enrich their nuclear fuel to weapons grade. Nor is Tehran likely to become nuclear armed; they are too rational for that.

Instead, Tehran will adopt a North Korean model of nuclear threats and remain eternally in the “nuclear capable” realm.

Iran would draw a quick American attack if a nuclear device was tested, and a fight is not in Iran’s interest. Israel is too weak to unilaterally strike Iranian nuclear plants so will continue to play the part of "bad cop" to America’s "good cop".

The more likely path is a negotiated settlement in which the US and Iran agree on personal spheres of influence.

In much the same way as former US President Ronald Reagan broached a detente with a 1980s Maoist China, Mr Obama will probably negotiate with Tehran while trying not to appear too impotent. A difficult task, and likely a defining one for his administration.

Then just next door in the Arab world governments continue to totter and violence threatens to spill from Syria into Lebanon even as it rips Syria apart.

A no-fly zone covering Syria, similar to that imposed over Libya in 2011, is still not a desired US strategic option. Neither is supporting direct Nato intervention or supplying the thousands of troops needed to impose regime change on Damascus.

The Obama administration has not intervened in Syria overtly, relying instead on covert intelligence officers and special operations forces to arm and train the Syrian rebels. The American status quo of a hands-off approach to the Arab Spring will likely remain the defining policy for the region.

Threats in North Africa

President Obama’s intervention in Libya precipitated a spill-over of violence into northern Mali. The war in Libya spread the country's heavy weaponry throughout the region and directly led to an insurgency in Mali.

As it stands, the situation in north Africa is grim. A group proclaiming ties to al Qaeda took advantage of the chaos in Mali and Libya to establish a firm presence.

The Obama administration has already broadened special operations forces and unmanned drone presence on the African continent in response to a recent deadly attack on a US embassy in Libya by militants.

An top of these concerns rests the developing trend of a slowly downsizing, less interventionist American foreign policy. The US has fought four wars since 1990 and the burden of being "world policeman" is becoming too heavy.

As exemplified in the Syrian decision not to intervene directly, the US is now returning to a policy of balancing regional powers instead of trying to control them directly. The consequence of shaking things up has proven disastrous and extremely costly.

Mr Obama’s final term will not be a simple one. While the developing concerns outlined here are not exhaustive, they give some idea of the complex task he faces.

As the world becomes more intertwined economically it will be the heartless face of geography and the people who inhabit its most volatile spaces which pull the strings of Mr Obama’s policies. 

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis

Nathan Smith
Thu, 08 Nov 2012
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Dangerous world awaits President Obama's second term