What risk will Barack Obama accept?

While congratulating President Barack Obama on his successful bid for re-election, British Prime Minister David Cameron commented, “I am hearing appalling stories of what has happened inside Syria and one of the first things I want to talk to Barack about is how we must do more to try to solve this crisis.” Indeed, the crisis in Syria has taken around 40,000 lives, according to some estimates. But, today’s risks do not end at the Syrian border. As he nears the start of his second term, Obama’s strategy to tackle global risk rests on a key question: Will the president’s goal be to mitigate or manage risks worldwide?

The difference is significant; its impact is far-reaching.

Both strategies assume the president accepts risk as a reality. Risk mitigation implies a systematic reduction of exposure to risk and its effects. It also implies limiting negative outcomes through disengagement. On the other hand, risk management embraces risk as a permanent feature of the global security landscape. The strategy recognizes both the upside and downside of risk. It also identifies sources of such risks that the president can manage. A the end of the day, while managing high risk can result in a high return, risk management embraces and engages some level of risk that the president is equipped to manage.

Surely, Obama’s efforts abroad are difficult and daunting. Iran nears a nuclear capability. Lebanon teeters on the brink of another civil war. Egypt struggles to enact a new Constitution. “Arab Spring” nations grapple to stabilize and transition to freer political and social systems. The war in Afghanistan continues. And that’s just the Middle East and North Africa. Critical risks paint the world map.

Yet, the president has bet that reducing exposure to risk will safeguard U.S. interests. Stated clearly in the 2012 State of the Union and later as a stump speech refrain, Obama’s priorities are to “take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.” Meanwhile, global risk is on the rise.

Ask Syrian President Bashar Assad to end the civil war in Syria. His response: “I’m Syrian. I’m made in Syria. And, I have to live in Syria and die in Syria.”

Ask Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to end Iran’s nuclear program. His response: “Iran won’t give into Western bullying.”

Ask Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to end terrorism and Islamist uprisings. His response: “I call on every free and honorable [person] in Egypt to participate in every protest against the Israeli Embassy, against the peace treaty with Israel, against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and against every siege of Gaza.”

These risks will not disappear. They have – and will – spread.

Economic turmoil exacerbates regional instability. Political and social systems worldwide are under increasing pressure. Populations are on the rise and on the move. Inexpensive technology enables the free flow of information across borders and rapid mobilization of people. Terrorism has not subsided. State conflicts grow in number. Each affects the U.S. on strategic, operational and tactical levels.

The stakes are high. Obama must embrace and manage global risk. Doing so enables the American president to preserve a wide spectrum of options and measures that preserve, create, and promote U.S. security in a volatile world.

Omeed Jafari is president and CEO of Piruze Analytics, Inc., a global corporate strategy and risk management consultancy headquartered in Washington, D.C. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 10, 2012, on page 7.




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