Focus

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

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

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."

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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."

Nevertheless, Obama is likely to face several major foreign-policy challenges in his second term. Many international affairs analysts place Iran – and the looming threat of war over its nuclear program – at the top of the list.

IRAN: How will its nuclear advance be stopped?

Dormant international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program seem likely to resume early next year, as Iran hints at a willingness to return to the table. But the progress Iran continues to make in the processing and stockpiling of 20-percent-enriched uranium – a critical step in the process for building a nuclear weapon – also means that 2013 is almost certain to be a make-or-break year for stopping Iran's advance – either through diplomacy or war.

"Iran is the most likely place where conflict and the projection of American power could get in the way of [Obama's] domestic agenda," says Kupchan, also a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. "A window of opportunity opened for the diplomatic front with Obama's reelection," he adds, "but that window will only remain open through the spring." If no deal is forthcoming, "There's a reasonably high likelihood of an American air war against Iran in the second half of 2013."

What might a deal that avoids the need for airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities look like?

Iran – which insists that its program is intended solely for peaceful purposes – would almost certainly be required to ship its stockpile of 20-percent-purified uranium out of the country, while opening up its facilities to an intrusive international inspection regime, nuclear experts say. Iran will seek an easing of tough international economic sanctions – sanctions the US is likely to add to in the run-up to any negotiations – in return for any steps it takes. One possible stumbling block: Israel wants no easing of sanctions until Iran gives up all enrichment activity.

Some US officials continue privately to hold out hope for a "grand bargain" between the US and Iran that would add restored diplomatic relations to a resolution of the nuclear issue. But in the eyes of most regional analysts, Obama will face a tough enough time reaching an interim nuclear deal with Iran before pressure for airstrikes – and what could become a disastrous Middle East war – becomes irresistible.

SYRIA: Will the US play a more robust role?

When Obama hastily dispatched Secretary Clinton to help broker a cease-fire in the Gaza missile conflict at the end of November, some regional analysts took it as a sign of the administration's postelection reengagement in the Middle East and the harbinger of a more robust US role in ending Syria's 21-month-long civil war.

That may have been wishful thinking on the part of pro-intervention forces. Obama may indeed try to demonstrate increased support for the rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, but that seems unlikely to include any rush to arm the rebels with the more sophisticated and high-powered weapons they seek.

"The president has never taken the supplying of arms off the table," the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told a recent gathering of international humanitarian organizations in Washington. The White House continues to debate whether more arms would help "in reaching the political solution Syria needs, or make it harder," he added.

The US worries that weapons might fall into the hands of radical Islamists, who appear to be growing in number and influence among the rebels. The dilemma is that by remaining at arm's length from all rebel factions over this concern, the US may discover too late that by keeping its distance it actually hastened Syria's fall into the hands of Islamists.

Two additional key concerns involve Mr. Assad's stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and the potential for the conflict to spill over (more than it already has) into Syria's neighbors.

Recently Obama, apparently prompted by intelligence reports of activity at the facilities where the chemical weapons are stored, repeated his warning to Assad of earlier this year that any use or movement of the weapons would cross a red line triggering more forceful US and international intervention.

As for the conflict's spillover effect, some experts say that signs of growing impact in NATO ally Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, or elsewhere could prompt Obama to back the imposition of limited no-fly zones over some border areas, but probably not much else.

CHINA: How to manage ties with a wary and rising power

Don't expect Obama to declare China a "currency manipulator" on Jan. 21, as his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, pledged to do on Day 1 of his administration. But that doesn't mean there will be smooth sailing for what many foreign-policy analysts say will be the most important bilateral relationship Obama will deal with in his second term – the relationship between a rising and increasingly assertive China and the reigning superpower that under Obama has launched a "pivot" toward Asia.

The issues confronting the two wary powers are numerous and complex, ranging from unfair trade practices and theft of intellectual property to human rights. They also include regional issues from North Korea to China's territorial claims, particularly vis-à-vis Japan and in the South China Sea.

It's an agenda being addressed as China adjusts to a once-a-decade leadership change, which culminated in November with the investiture of President Xi Jinping – and to the US "pivot" to Asia that China eyes with suspicion.

Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says China heard Obama's pivot as a call to contain China and for other Asian countries to choose which power to align with. It will take a lot of effort, she writes on Carnegie's website, "to convince China that Washington's actual intent was and is to rebalance its attention from the Middle East toward East Asia."

AFGHANISTAN: How to wind down the 'forgotten war'

Afghanistan is often referred to as the "forgotten war," but with 66,000 US troops in the country, questions of how the US and NATO will complete a full drawdown of forces by the end of 2014 will remain a critical concern. Among the issues to be addressed:

• Does the president decide on a steady and sizable reduction of forces, or does he opt for a hiatus in major withdrawals to allow for offensives in the summer 2013 fighting season, as military commanders seem to prefer?

• Can the training programs for Afghan soldiers and police deliver security forces capable of assuming Afghanistan's defense and safety post-2014?

• How much effort should be put into jump-starting talks with the Taliban?

• What can be done to safeguard the gains many Afghans – in particular, women and girls – have made in areas such as education and health over the long US presence?

Also to be mulled over in 2013: the size of any residual US military presence to be left in the country – for advice, training, and as a reassuring presence – after 2014. Early proposals suggest a force of 10,000 might remain as part of a US-Afghan accord, though some experts warn that is not enough.

PAKISTAN: Irritants – and some hope – in an uneasy partnership

One objective of keeping some US forces in Afghanistan after 2014 would be to signal to neighboring Pakistan that the US is not abandoning the region. The US is keen to see Pakistan relinquish its longtime strategy of harboring and even supporting the Afghan Taliban as a means of maintaining a measure of influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan worries about an Afghanistan without an American presence becoming increasingly unstable – and subject to the rising influence of archrival India.

Other irritants – including Obama's recourse to drone strikes to target Al Qaeda and others planning or carrying out attacks on US troops and other interests from Pakistani territory – will keep Pakistan on the 2013 agenda.

But Obama will also be able to work with key positive signs in Pakistan – some remarkable political stability as the country approaches elections next year and a surge in national unity in response to the Taliban's recent high-profile attack on a young girl advocating girls' educational rights – as he deals with one of the world's most worrisome nuclear powers.

RUSSIA: Growing differences cannot be masked

Ah, for the days of the vaunted "reset" of US-Russia relations.

Some experts once predicted the warm-up in relations between the two powers would stand out as the top foreign-policy accomplishment of Obama's first term.

No more. Vladimir Putin, reelected as president in March, has turned a cold shoulder to the West and its focus on democratic principles and human rights as he executes an Asia pivot of his own.

Mr. Putin responded to Obama's reelection by inviting him to visit Russia, but the gesture can't mask the differences that only seem to be growing between the two on issues from Syria and the fate of Assad to missile defense in Europe and arms control.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT: Yet another attempt at peace?

Obama launched a high-profile peace effort in the first week of his first term – and it got nowhere. Four years later, the conditions on the ground point to an even less-favorable environment for attempting a major diplomatic push to reach a two-state solution – something some regional experts say may no longer be possible anyway.

So it may come as a surprise that other experts say Obama will embark on another peace initiative as early as next year.

"Obama's choice is between the difficult and the impossible," says Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel and author of the recently published "Pathways to Peace."

The "difficult" is to launch a peace effort early on, when Obama will have other domestic and international priorities, Mr. Kurtzer says. But the "impossible" would be to wait until later, he adds, when trends – from settlement construction in the West Bank to political changes in the region – will have shut the door on a diplomatic solution.

For those who say Obama has no choice but to try again at Mideast peace, the next question is: Does he name another Mideast envoy? Some experts say that if Obama is serious, he'll forget the envoy and enlist his secretary of State to help him lean on the parties.

Others, eyeing the reality of Obama's agenda, foreign and domestic, say he should name an envoy. They already have a name in mind: former President Bill ­Clinton.

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