Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Obama: Season Two

Foreign Policy, Domestic Concerns, and Obama's Game Plan for his Final Term

Come January, President Obama will be re-inaugurated and one of his first tasks will be to assemble an entirely new national security team. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and CIA Director David Petraeus will all be (or have already) bowing out--Obama will have some pretty big shoes to fill. As much as he would love to focus on domestic issues, Obama and his second-term team probably can't afford to shy away from getting involved in some of the world's most difficult conflicts. 

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in the Oval Office, Sept. 28, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
To this point, as an article discussing Obama's new team points out, the Obama administration has largely avoided interventionist policies (most notably in Syria). Despite Obama's reticence, his "visceral dislike for open-ended, long tern commitments of U.S. boots on the ground"  the United States cannot and should not join the "retro-1960s march to peace, love, and isolationism," as if that version of the United States ever truly existed.  America cannot afford to try to "retrench"--despite the "perceived failures" in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The author of the Foreign Policy article , James Jeffery, firmly believes that America can and should continue to play a peacemaking role in the world at large. He does discourage continuing to enter into quagmires like Afghanistan and Iraq have proven to be. He mentions a recent Pew Survey, which indicates that "more than 60 percent [of Americans polled] want us out of Afghanistan and even less involved in determining the makeup of Middle Eastern governments, while almost as large a percentage (56 percent) urge a firm stand against Iran (up 6 percent since January)."Jeffery indicates that this may be a way forward for the foreign policy team that is waiting in the wings. He cautions that they
 "...must be careful not to launch massive new adventure for questionable goals. They must understand that preserving our economic strength, reputation for military competence, and support among the American people are also core national interests as much as any specific on-the-ground success."
Jeffery continues to say that we have to stay engaged "because there is no international security without us, and there can be no prosperous , safe America without that security."  It's a nice thought, obviously, in a nice article that ultimately says very little about the future of the American role on the world stage.

Read: hands off
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Obama could easily, and perhaps correctly, interpret his reelection as a sign of approval from the American people for pursuing a policy of "disengagement" in his first term, especially in that time leading up to the election. When it comes to foreign entanglements  Obama definitely seems to prefer the hands off approach. 

The December 1st issue of the Economist argues that Obama's foreign-policy goal in his second term will be to actively avoid costly entanglements. I tend to agree. Obama and his team believe that "his outstanding task is to secure a domestic legacy" to tackle the tough issues at home and that sticky foreign entanglements may threaten that goal. After all, Obama was cheered during the campaign for vowing to bring the troops back from Afghanistan and for promising nation-building "here at home," not for vowing involvement with Syria or promising to engage an increasingly hostile Iran. Americans, it seems, are ready for the government's attention to be focused back home, whether that means fixing education and health care, or repairing and rebuilding deteriorating infrastructure. Make no mistake, these are worthy and imperative causes. These are issues that must be addressed.  America deserves to have its government to attend to its domestic problems. 

Nevertheless, the rest of the world beckons (or, to be accurate, clamors).  The Israel-Palestine kerfuffle,  Egypt, Iran acting out (and shooting down drones, allegedly), disputed waters and even more heavily disputed rocks around China, the Euro Zone--these are all issues that clamor for the President's attention and threaten to distract from issues at home.  The Economist article indicates that senior officials in the administration say that Obama plans to be "present but not deeply involved" in global affairs. Obama's take on managing foreign affairs is distinctive from Bush's, namely in dialing down the "all military, all the time" response seemingly endemic in the early 2000s. The Obama administration seeks to engage the world on an increased level of complexity. Essentially, this is an experiment: "a macro-policy of engagement that shuns the micromanagement of intervention." Also, as the article notes, decisive action against al-Qaeda has allowed Democrats to stop being so defensive about national security all the time. 

It's clear that Obama would, ideally, like to approach foreign policy in his final term by keeping America at arms-length. Whether or not this approach will be able to endure has, of course, yet to be seen. The Economist calls a parallel to the 1990s following the end of the Cold War, where America first considered becoming the "global policeman." But, as the article points out, America now is pretty lonely compared to America then, when the EU was on the rise, and there were hopes that China and Russia might become "responsible stakeholders." Now, with the state that the EU is in, China epitomizing self interest, and Russia intensely suspicious of everything America does, it does not seem likely that the Obama can depend on any sort of  help from other major players to answer a global call for aid.  Rest be assured, in the next four years something will happen that will demand American attention, but if the US is significantly drawn in, it will be grudgingly. 


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