Obama's second term foreign policy priorities

Where will Obama look to involve the Untied States in his second term?

Where will Obama take the US now?
Dr. James Boys
On 21 November 2012 10:38

So, after all of the razzmatazz of the 2012 U.S. election cycle, the billions of dollars spent, the thousands of miles traveled, the adverts aired, the distorted facts, the inconclusive debates, and the debate over media bias, what has changed?

Arguably very little; Obama is right back where he was, the Republicans still control the purse strings in Congress, and the Democrats are running the Senate, having picked up two extra seats.

Barack Obama is intriguingly poised; the first president since Reagan to be elected and re-elected with a majority of the popular vote, but the first since Woodrow Wilson to be returned with a reduced majority. His re-election was by a wider margin than some had expected (myself included, but see below*) and certainly ran counter to some polling that was circulated in the last days of the campaign; but the fundamental reality is that Obama’s presidency will now continue to run its course until his successor takes the office in January 2017.

Obama’s re-election will have a ripple effect. Those who hoped for his defeat will be forced to continue to work with him despite their aspirations; those who anticipated his return to office will seek to forge closer ties to the second terms administration, buoyed by a renewed mandate. Re-elected to a term-limited second and final spell in office, Obama becomes only the second Democrat since FDR to secure this status. (The other was Bill Clinton).

Yet, intriguingly, despite having secured a second term, power will begin to slowly ebb away from Barack Obama throughout his time in office. A singular failing of the American system of government is its focus on campaigning, as opposed to governing.  Accordingly, considerations are already turning to who will succeed Obama in the 2016 elections.

This has a knock on effect, since the result of that election could well depend upon the midterms of 2014, two short years from now. Once that is out of the way, all eyes will focus on the race to replace Obama and his political power will drain away as both Democrats and Republicans seek a president to lead the United States into the third century of this millennium.

Having served four years, what will Obama focus upon in his second term? As I discussed last week, he will need to name a new Cabinet shortly. It is surprising that this has not occurred yet. However, history reveals that re-elected American presidents have tended to be far more internationalist than in their first term, as they seek to present themselves as international statesmen and eye their political legacy. With the clock ticking, Obama will be aware that his time is finite. What will he do to justify an international legacy? 

Historically, presidents have to go to the trouble of solving regional conflicts before winning a Nobel Peace prize. Obama doesn’t have that to worry about. So where could he look to involve the Untied States in his second term? Luckily for Obama, the international environment is replete with opportunities for the American president to involve himself.

Clearly the situation in regard to Iran’s ongoing nuclear ambitions looks set to dominate the second term. With forthcoming elections, it is unlikely that saber-rattling will end any time soon, so this should be expected to escalate nicely in the coming months.

This will be exacerbated by elections to be held in Israel, which will also contribute to a rise in tension in the region. With both Iran and Israel entering election cycles, the prospect for heated political rhetoric will increase dramatically, as will potential pressure for pre-emptive action. Having deliberately sought to keep the international community quiet during the US election cycle, Obama’s capacity to keep a lid on this simmering crisis appears set to be severely tested.

The decision by the Israeli government in recent days to retaliate against the rocket attacks from Gaza has raised the first potential foreign policy crisis of Obama’s second term, before it has even technically begun. His decision to continue with his tour of Asia and to dispatch his outgoing Secretary of State at the last minute does not necessarily bode well for hopes that he may choose to focus upon solving this crisis in a second term.

The key flashpoint would appear to be Syria. Despite the best hopes of the administration, this problem refuses to dissipate; Assad won’t leave and the Free Syrian Army has yet to secure a victory. Efforts to engage via the United Nations are unlikely to succeed due to Russian and Chinese prevarication, leaving Obama with few palatable options.

Unlike in Libya, the West has yet to be ‘invited’ to intervene by a recognized regional body. It appears likely that the West has been channeling arms to the rebel movement, but it currently risks being in the worst of all possible worlds: Unprepared to defend the Assad regime, but likewise unprepared to openly support the rebel movement. Moves are being made in this direction, but it may be too late. Caught in this pincer movement, the West could emerge as the long-term losers if the rebels gain power and believe that they owe their success to Islamic forces that aided them in the face of Western indifference.

As Obama prepares to announce his second term team he can take comfort in the news that the United States is on track to become energy independent by 2017, due in part to Bush-era polices. This may or may not end conspiracy theories surrounding the rationale for US foreign policy, but it will certainly impact US policy in the Middle East as its dependency on foreign oil lessens.

One thing that does appear certain is that Obama will be able to deliver upon his pledge to withdraw US forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan. Having completed the former, the latter is on schedule. Quite what will have been achieved during this decade-long struggle is another matter, as it would appear certain that any efforts to build a nation on the ruins of Afghanistan have utterly failed.

As the West prepares to depart, one is all too sadly reminded of the US withdrawal from Vietnam and Henry Kissinger’s lament for an honorable delay before the rape of the first virgin.

*On a lighter note, I was pleased to be reminded this week that on October 3 I had made a prediction in regard to the outcome of the presidential election. Using an online, interactive map I engaged in the process of allocating the various states to either Obama or Romney, and with them, their respective Electoral College votes. I decided to check out my predication with the actual results and was delighted to see that I had accurately predicted the result over a month before polling day. Skeptics out there are invited to check out my twitter feed for evidence at @jamesdboys

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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