BEIRUT: As a second-term president, Barack Obama will face the usual conundrum of capitalizing on a second election victory while fighting off “lame duck” status for as long as possible during a 2012-2016 term.
Experts believe that multiple economic issues will dominate the agenda of whoever emerges victorious in Tuesday’s poll, leaving less time for an American president to focus on foreign policy.
Obama’s track record thus far indicates that he is likely to continue his hybrid policy of supporting multilateralism on various international fronts, while fine-tuning the other side of his foreign policy approach: secretive military strikes in the form of drones.
Obama is considered a Wilsonian, someone who believes in the value of international partnership to boost stability and democracy, but he is also a realist, meaning that he recognizes the limits to America’s ability to influence events abroad.
He is more likely than his challenger Mitt Romney to conclude agreements with Russia, for example, on reducing nuclear stockpiles, compared to Romney’s stance that Moscow is Washington’s No. 1 foreign threat and deserves no arms-reduction treaties.
Obama is also likely to seek out agreements with China to resolve economic and security issues, but that relationship itself will depend on the outcome of the Chinese leadership re-shuffle that concludes later this week in a once-a-decade event.
Obama is expected to focus on dealing with tension between China and Japan to ensure peaceful outcomes, in contrast to Romney’s expected preference for using the countries’ disputes to weaken Beijing.
Much of Obama’s attention during a second term will be focused on thrashing out very tough budget negotiations with Congress, dealing with the economic and financial crisis in Europe, and adjusting to slowdowns in growth in China, the global economy’s chief engine. Obama’s stated objectives are to re-orient U.S. foreign policy more toward the Asia-Pacific arena, as the “world’s fastest-growing region.”
The selection of a successor to his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will be watched to see if it goes to an internationalist in the mold of Clinton, or a more pragmatic, middle-of-the-road Democrat, such as Senator John Kerry.
Obama’s policy on Iran is likely to remain intact, however, since the administration hasn’t mustered support for anything other than a harsh set of economic sanctions on Tehran, backed by the world community.
A second Obama administration is unlikely to act militarily against Iran, in the absence of a dramatic new move on the part of the Iranians. The sanctions appear to be steadily eroding Iran’s economy, bolstering Obama’s preference to avoid military action unless it is absolutely necessary.
An Obama administration will face rising pressure to change its course on Syria, but the president and his team support the notion that the U.S. doesn’t have the power to act as brazenly and forcefully as in past decades, especially with the example of Iraq and Afghanistan of recent years.
The White House under Obama has a mindset of quality, not quantity when it comes to foreign intervention, and would be satisfied with doing anything short of putting troops on the ground in Syria, unless there is an international consensus to rely on for support.
A second-term Obama is expected to try and meet a deadline next year for withdrawing from Afghanistan, but America’s Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen is due to be replaced in the next few months, and an Obama White House could end up modifying the 2014 time-table.
The issue of dealing with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other types of extremist groups will remain a thorny issue.
While vowing to make a break with the George W. Bush years, Obama has dramatically expanded the use of drones and other secretive, unilateral strikes against “enemy targets.”
Unlike the administration’s performance on Iran, the situation in Pakistan and Yemen, where civilian casualties and outrage over violations of national sovereignty have enraged local populations, is less comforting for Obama and requires a re-think.
As for other areas in the Middle East, Obama’s policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has also been heavily criticized for passivity and blind support for Israel, although Obama’s critics naturally say he is too tough on Tel Aviv.
The future Israeli government, to be decided in elections in January, could lead to a new policy, once the dust settles and decides the fate of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a frosty relationship with the White House.
U.S. foreign policy has long treated Lebanon like an adjunct of Syria, with the exception of several years following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri when neoconservative thinking was dominant and supported regime change in places such as Iran, Iraq and Syria.
However, Washington’s chief nemesis, Hezbollah, has been a part of Lebanese Cabinets since that year, and the U.S. continues to maintain cordial relations with the Beirut government, while aggressively targeting Hezbollah’s financial and other operations when it can. Obama’s preference appears to be stability in Lebanon over any other concern, until further notice.
Obama has yet to offer a coherent policy on the Arab uprisings that are shaking the region and if they continue their momentum, a full re-think of the situation will be in order, if not become a pressing need.