Special Reports
 
 


 

OBAMA'S SECOND TERM:
WHERE DOES US FOREIGN POLICY
GO FROM HERE?

by

PETER CRISELL

________________
  

 

 

The status quo maintained
And so the Obama-Romney presidential race is over. Between them the two contenders spent more than $1,600 million on the election campaign, the most expensive in world history. The result is that nothing has changed. Obama is still in the White House, Republicans continue to dominate the House of Representatives and the Democrats control the Senate.

When Barack Obama assumed office in January 2009, hope and expectation were high. In the preceding eight years, The Republican administration had crashed the economy, ballooned the deficit and diminished America’s standing in the world. The economic climate was the worst since 1933. The banking system was near collapse, two big car manufacturers were heading towards bankruptcy; and employment, the housing market and output were spiralling downwards. The US president’s influence on the economy is constrained politically and constitutionally but Obama undaunted, resolved to restore growth and remake the economy to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Obama responded to the crisis by stress-testing and recapitalising the banks and quickly introduced a package of measures to stimulate the economy. He rescued car makers, Chrysler and General Motors from disaster by financing their reorganisation. Bailing out the beleaguered housing market has proved more complex and elusive. On the fiscal side, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to pull the economy out of a slump, but growth remains sluggish and the critics claim Obama has done ’too little too late’. He attempted to restructure the economy through an interventionist industrial policy. Funds were allocated to boost green energy and to improve highways and to build high speed rail and other infrastructure projects.

The results have been mixed. On the legislative front, he has achieved his main goals of health care and financial reform. His record on trade is more creditable. He struck a deal with the Republicans and has managed well the delicate economic relationship with China. As in 2008, ‘Obama’s coalition’ of women, young voters, African Americans and Hispanics carried him to the presidency for a second term. No president since Franklin D Roosevelt has been returned for a second term with unemployment at 7.9% and the economy in such a fragile position.

The Republican failure
That the Republicans managed to lose a winnable presidential race can partly be explained by Romney’s lack of appeal to ordinary voters and by the Democrats’ ability to get their supporters out to vote. But the exit polls confirm that Republicans lost mainly because they appeal to an ever narrowing demographic – older, white, evangelical males. 89% of Romney’s total vote came from whites, compared with 56% for Obama. The data showed that almost 57% of the total white vote went to Romney, compared with 41% for Obama. The vast majority of votes cast for Romney came from white voters but the problem for Republicans is that they are not attracting non-white voters. “The demographics race we're losing badly," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told The Washington Post this summer. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term," he said.

According to exit polls, the Republicans’ backward looking moral conservatism alienated younger women who were angered by the ill-informed and insensitive pronouncements on pregnancy, abortion and rape. As a result, 67% of unmarried women voted for Obama, 31% for Romney. Obama also won about 63% of the younger voters aged 18 to 34. About 80% of blacks, Hispanics and other nonwhite voters cast their votes for Obama. Less than 17% voted for Romney, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling (1). Hispanics constitute 10% of the electorate and their numbers are rising. They were particularly important in the battleground states of Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia but the Republicans hostile and inept pronouncements on immigration – calling for ‘self-deportation’ and referring to Latinos as ‘illegals’ - meant 71% voted for Obama. Demographic change, a slowly improving economy, a clear rejection of Republican conservatism, and support of pragmatic progressive policies on social and economic issues helped secure victory for Obama. More than 50% of Americans voters facing rising inequality and diminished economic opportunities were not drawn towards the conservative alternative of tax cuts, deregulation and limited government.

But what of Obama’s foreign policy?

Foreign policy: rhetoric and reality
A CBS poll (2) taken just before Obama was re-elected found that only 5% of Americans said foreign policy was an "issue of importance”. War-weary Americans of all political persuasions have shown no appetite for overseas military intervention, democracy promotion, and a number of other goals that have driven U.S. foreign policy in recent years. For example, by 59% to 31%, Americans think the U.S. should not be involved in combat in Afghanistan. 52% believe the threat Iran poses to the U.S. can be contained with diplomacy, while 22% think it is a threat that requires military action. 17% do not think Iran is a threat at this time.

In his victory speech on November 6th, Obama said: "We want to pass on a country that's safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth ... but also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war, to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being." Similar sentiments would no doubt have been expressed by Romney if he had been elected. So does Obama’s record suggest that his future foreign policy would be any different to that of a Romney presidency? Foreign affairs journalist, Simon Tisdall, believes Obama’s world vision is different from Romney’s. He declares that Romney shares the foreign policy outlook of his hero Ronald Reagan and his approach would have been “underpinned by delusional nostalgia for the 1980s, a harking back to the cold war era, when the US believed it led the world in facing down the "evil empire" (the Soviet Union), when whole continents were divided into tame client nations or rogue states, and when western (meaning American) values were promoted, as a nonpareil paradigm for all to follow”. In contrast Obama is more prosaic. “He promises a prolongation of the cautious, pragmatic-aspirational foreign policy that characterised his first term and disappointed many supporters. Specifically, this includes tight focus on the Afghanistan-Pakistan withdrawal, ongoing global operations against al-Qaida and linked jihadi groups, careful management of the Arab spring and Iran dossiers, new emphasis on Asia and denuclearisation, and global alliance-building”.(3)

Obama's cautious and more pragmatic foreign policy decisions contrast with his lofty rhetoric and desire for change. Given the problems of the contemporary world, some might say that pragmatism was the correct route to take. But critics have interpreted this approach as weak and incompetent and have accused Obama of lacking strategy and responding only to events. His policy on the Middle East provides an example.
Israel-Palestine conflict

In June 2009 Barack Obama delivered a speech at Cairo University in which he promised to seek "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world". Declaring it a time of great tension, he tried to move beyond the 9/11 attacks, the US-led invasion of Iraq, the "war on terror" and the intractable Palestinian issue. Before he became president Obama had opposed George Bush on Iraq and attacked Bush’s failure to achieve a just peace for the Palestinians. Once in office, his eloquent speech raised expectations but many remained sceptical. For example, one commentator contrasted Obama’s account of the "enormous trauma" done to the US by 9/11 when almost 3,000 people were killed, with his silence over the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows left in Iraq. Double standards were also evident when Obama lectured the Palestinians on the evils of violent resistance. .. “did Obama really imagine that such words would impress an Arab public that watched in horror as Israel slaughtered 1,400 people in Gaza last winter, including hundreds of sleeping, fleeing or terrified children, with American-supplied weapons? Did he think his listeners would not remember that the number of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians targeted and killed by Israel has always far exceeded by orders of magnitude the number of Israelis killed by Arabs, precisely because of the American arms he has pledged to continue giving Israel with no accountability?”(4)

On the Palestine issue, Obama’s first term has been a grave disappointment. Any hope of a two-state solution has all but disappeared. He backed down in the confrontation with Israel's Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, over whether settlements in the occupied territories would have to cease before any resumption of peace talks. The Israeli government ignored the American administration’s pressure on it to extend a moratorium on settlement building. Since then, Obama has been reluctant to push either party to take the necessary steps to pave the way for a return to negotiations. It may be that Obama’s methods of diplomacy are to blame. His appeals to the shared interest of countries at war and at peace have succeeded in some cases but, as the Washington Post puts it, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - haunted by the Holocaust and the perceived injustice of a Palestinian land lost in war - resisted the natural give-and-take of negotiation that Obama counted on”. (5)

Obama’s second term begins on the eve of Israel's elections. Palestinians have vowed to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognise an independent state of Palestine, a move opposed by the U.S. as well as Israel, which favour negotiations. The Palestinians, in congratulating Obama on his re-election, urged him to support their U.N. appeal, but the American ambassador to Israel rejected that course. If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is returned to power, as seems likely, Obama might feel free in his second term to put more intense pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. In the absence of a settlement freeze, The Palestinians seem unlikely to be any more amenable.

The Syria conundrum
Meanwhile the conflict in Syria, which has claimed more than 36,000 lives since March 2011 continues unabated with the ever-present risk that the conflict could spill over into neighbouring countries. Will Obama take a new initiative or adopt a change of policy? There is no appetite for foreign military intervention in Syria from any quarter. There are fears that arming the fragmented opposition could backfire as weapons fall into the hands of extremists. Syrian President Bashar Assad's allies, Russia and China, have blocked strong action against Damascus at the U.N. Security Council. Meanwhile, America’s allies hope that Obama's re-election is an opportunity for the world to take the necessary action (whatever that might be), to end the deadlocked civil war.(6)

The Arab spring response
Obama’s response to the Arab Spring has been hesitant and uncertain, seeking to align US interests with those of ordinary Arabs but fearful of encouraging extreme Islamism. The Middle East uprisings in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Syria have removed old dictators, some of whom the West relied on for support. As the new regimes establish themselves, demand their dues and become more resistant to American power, Obama may face tougher foreign policy decisions. (7) The US hopes that the realities of exercising power will encourage Islamist-led governments toward pragmatism.

Egypt is pivotal. President Mohammed Mursi of Egypt is facing dire economic and social problems after his country's revolution. Continuing violence and insecurity in the Sinai Peninsula, a critical buffer zone between the Arab and Israeli worlds, threaten to cause problems with Israel.

Iran’s nuclear programme
There are hopes in Iran that Obama’s re-election might lead to a diplomatic solution in the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear programme. Obama’s policy is that sanctions and diplomacy are the best course to secure concessions from Iran on its nuclear programme, despite fears that this could eventually lead to Iran possessing atomic weapons. Iran says it seeks reactors for energy and medical research only. So far talks between Iran and the major powers have failed but Iranian officials have hinted that they would consider scaling back uranium enrichment in return for the easing of some economic sanctions. The US is only willing to hold direct talks with Tehran if there were a real chance of nuclear compromise. However, the military option remains on the table. Iran will return to talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on December 13th, the U.N. nuclear watchdog has announced.(8) This is the latest push to seek a peaceful end to a dispute that has raised fears of a new Middle East war. The IAEA said it hoped the talks in Tehran would produce an agreement to allow it to resume an investigation into the possible military aspects of Iran's nuclear programme.

The Afghanistan conflict
Top of Obama’s foreign policy agenda during his second term will be the Afghanistan conflict, now in its twelfth year. The speed of the continuing withdrawal of US troops will depend on unfolding events as well as the advice of his military officials. Of 100,000 troops stationed there 33,000 have withdrawn. Nearly all US and NATO combat troops will have left Afghanistan by 2014.

Obama will soon receive his top military officials' recommendations about how fast to withdraw the roughly 66,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan. The first 33,000 American troops withdrew by the end of September. His administration is expected to seek agreement with the Afghan government to define the rules for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, when nearly all U.S. and NATO combat forces will have left the country. Afghans elect a new president to replace Hamid Karzai in 2014. Some Afghans are concerned that the election and the troop withdrawal in the same year will further destabilise the country, and that their own soldiers and police will be unable to maintain security. Despite the weak government, political instability, poverty and corruption, the U.S.-led coalition says it is confident that the country will be stable and that the 352,000 Afghan security forces will be able to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t revert to becoming a haven for international terrorism - surely an example, if history is a guide, of ‘the wish being father to the thought’. Nevertheless, the Obama administration also will continue its efforts to persuade the Taliban leaders to negotiate a political resolution. So far there is little evidence of success.

Much depends on the US relationship with Pakistan.(9) Historically this has always been marked by convergence and divergence of national interests with relations oscillating between friendship and hostility. The drone attacks and the US raid in Abbottabad that killed al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, having been a recent and continuing source of friction.

Relations with China
Obama's re-election may have caused some relief to China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, who would have been accused of currency manipulation if Romney had been elected president. The prospect of a trade war has therefore diminished. Nonetheless, Obama will be faced by a rising and more assertive China and may resent America’s diminishing capacity to shape events. (10) Obama has sought to deepen ties with Beijing to lessen the prospect of a military confrontation with the China military that is starting to challenge American dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. Another threat to US-China relations is the escalating tension between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea. The U.S. has a treaty obligation to help Japan if it is attacked, an eventuality Obama may be anxious to avoid. There is a risk that China’s new leaders may pump up nationalistic rhetoric against Japan and the US, if their economy stalls and dissatisfaction with the Communist Party increases. However, both the US and China recognise that good relations are in both their economic interests. As Thomas Fingar, a former China analyst in the U.S. intelligence community told CNN, "The interdependencies go both ways. We are dependent on them and they are dependent on us. That puts a pretty strong floor under the relationship."

The Russia ‘reset’
During his first term, Obama made ‘resetting’ relations with Russia a priority. It brought some results: a major nuclear arms control pact (START), Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Russian help with the US war in Afghanistan. Among the differences between Moscow and Washington are the use of the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, the transit hub used by the U.S. military, and attempts to secure other facilities in Central Asia as the 2014 deadline for withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan draws near. Russia's backing of Assad's regime in Syria and opposition to increased Western sanctions on Iran, are other points of contention. Moscow wants Obama to scale back the U.S. missile defence plans in Eastern Europe but any move by Obama to do so would provoke cries of appeasement from Republicans, who continue to control the House of Representatives.
Overall there has been no warmth in the America-Russia relationship. Maria Lipman, an expert at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, said: " … the Kremlin is now too committed to a path of using its old cold war foe as a bogeyman, to consolidate wavering domestic support. Anti-American rhetoric in Russia has gone too far to shift easily now." (11)

The nuclear threat
In a speech in Prague in 2009, Barack Obama resolved to work for a world without nuclear weapons. He declared that the US “will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.” In April 2010, President Barack Obama convened a summit in Washington that set the ambitious goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide within four years. Some progress has been made - for example, Chile returned highly enriched uranium to the US and Kazakhstan has moved spent fuel to a secure depot. Ukraine has transferred fissile material to a Russian storage site. But progress has been patchy, in part because the initial goal set in 2010 was vague without a detailed timeline or work plan.

The START Treaty 2011 between Russia and the United States limits the two countries to 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons each, without limiting the numbers that are held in reserve or undergoing maintenance. While this is progress, Obama believes that the nuclear powers will have to disarm much further, if they continue to expect non-nuclear countries to cooperate. As one foreign affairs specialist put it: “The administration will soon release its presidential guidance on what the US nuclear posture should look like in the coming four years, and that guidance will almost certainly point towards more cuts, perhaps to 1,000 strategic weapons. There will also be a new push to engage the Russians in a new treaty that would encompass tactical weapons as well, and mark a step change in the number of nuclear weapons on the planet – a substantial legacy by any standards.”(12)

There is little optimism in Washington about a deal with North Korea, to provide aid in return for a reversal in Pyongyang's nuclear programme. Last year, Obama's attempt at negotiating a nuclear freeze with North Korea in exchange for food aid, ended in failure when Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket in defiance of the U.N. ban. It is likely that the U.S. will continue to urge China to use its relations and economic clout to urge it to push North Korea towards disarmament, but China fears a collapse of the regime and the instability and flood of refugees that could result.

A change on climate change?
In his acceptance speech on November 6th, Barack Obama said: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” His message was reinforced by the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy which underlined how costly climate change will be in human, environmental, and economic terms for the United States and the whole world. How President Obama addresses climate and energy issues will help to define his legacy. As Bloomberg.com puts it:

“As America recovers economically, we can– and must– also protect the environment and safeguard people’s health. The economy, environment, and public health are not in conflict, but complementary – they cannot be sustained over time without each other. America needs to get on a path that builds economic strength through investment and policy decisions that reward clean energy and enhance climate resilience.”(13) Fine words, but the difficult part is to do something about it, particularly with the Republican ‘climate change deniers’ dominating the House of Representatives.

The US record on this has not so far been impressive. There has been a lack of ambition in its global efforts to curb greenhouse emissions. The US, under George W Bush’s administration, pulled out of a U.N. pact to curb emissions from industrialised countries because the pact didn't include major developing economies, such as China. There has so far been no change of policy by Obama. Although China is showing an increasing awareness of the problem, it blames global warming on the West.

Barack Obama faces formidable foreign policy challenges as he moves into his second term. However, the alliance with Israel may give him considerable leverage in breaking the deadlock in the Middle East. Will the finality of his second term energise him into action, after the disappointments of the last four years? Elsewhere in the world Obama will be constantly reminded that the days of American hegemony are over. The rise of China, India, Brazil and other new powers will increasingly place limits on American power as we move rapidly into a multipolar world.

(1) http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/07/us-usa-campaign-exitpoll-idUSBRE8A601520121107

(2) http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57537588/poll-ahead-of-third-debate-obama-leads-on-foreign-policy/

(3) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/04/mitt-romney-cold-war-nostalgia

(4) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/04/barack-obama-middleeast

(5) http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-searches-for-middle-east-peace/2012/07/14/gJQAQQiKlW_story.html

(6) http://world.time.com/2012/11/07/turkey-patriot-missiles-discussed-for-syria/

(7) http://www.nj.com/us-politics/index.ssf/2012/11/obamas_foreign_policy_opportun.html

(8) http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/world/2012-11/10/c_131964820.htm

(9) http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-2-141962-New-Obama-administration-to-review-policies-towards-Pakistan

(10) http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2012-11/07/content_15887668.htm

(11) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/05/russia-view-us-elections

(12) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/07/barack-obama-foreign-policy-promises

(13) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-09/a-climate-change-agenda-for-the-second-obama-administration.html