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Which world hot spots will clamor for Obama's attention in second term?

Obama is unequivocal about his intent to refocus on US domestic issues during his second term. But the world is not likely to cooperate. Here are seven foreign-policy challenges already bearing down on him.

By Staff writer / December 11, 2012

President Obama consulted by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month from the president's hotel suite in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Pete Souza/White House

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During his campaign for reelection, President Obama spoke repeatedly of a need to refocus attention and energy on US domestic issues. After more than a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, "It's time to do some nation-building here at home."

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And White House policy experts agree: Mr. Obama likely does want to keep his focus domestic in his second term.

"Obama's first, second, third, and fourth priorities will be to put America's house in order," says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. That's true both because Obama "ran on that platform," he adds, and because he "understands that our strength abroad ultimately rests on our strength at home."

But the world is not likely to cooperate by retreating to the background. Challenges ranging from Iran's advancing nuclear program and a destabilizing civil war in Syria to China's economic rise and growing regional assertiveness are certain to push their way onto Obama's agenda – some even before he takes the oath of office for a second term Jan. 21.

And as much as Obama might like the world to allow the United States the space to turn its attention to domestic needs, the truth is that the world continues to look to US leadership.

The Gaza cease-fire in late November between Israel and Hamas, reached with the decisive involvement of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, demonstrated how the US continues to be a critical – some would say indispensable – player in international affairs.

"The prominent role Clinton played ... makes clear that the US is still the most critical player for addressing most of the world's disputes," Mr. Kupchan says.

But given the president's sense of urgent domestic priorities, even as the world presents a range of pressing challenges, Americans shouldn't expect any dramatic foreign-policy initiatives from Obama – on the order of the Israeli-Palestinian peace bid he launched in the first week of his first term – right off the bat in the second term, some political experts say.

"The president laid out his agenda in his victory speech, when he talked about priorities like continuing the economic recovery, avoiding the 'fiscal cliff,' and getting people back to work; so he made it clear he'll be investing his political capital in those kinds of domestic battles," says Mark Siegel, a former deputy assistant to the president in the Jimmy Carter White House who is now a partner at Locke Lord Strategies in Washington.

"I just don't see him pushing any new initiative in terms of Middle East peace, not right away," he adds. "And he certainly won't be launching any kind of military involvement in Syria or Iran."

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