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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.