Mention “grand bargain,” and most Washington watchers will be forgiven for thinking domestically and in terms of the deal Obama will be trying to reach with Republicans to avoid the “fiscal cliff’ of mandatory budget cuts and tax hikes.
But there’s another grand bargain hanging out there like hard-to-reach fruit, and that’s one envisioned between Washington and Tehran that would verifiably end the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, ensuring there is no path to an Iranian nuclear weapon. In exchange, the US would lift onerous economic sanctions – and potentially even normalize relations.
But reaching such a grand bargain is by no means a short-term proposition, with most regional experts agreeing that the interim steps are daunting enough. Dormant international negotiations with the Iranians (and which include the US) may well get going again in the wake of the US elections – especially given the severe bite that international sanctions have made in the Iranian economy.
An interim deal would address the most threatening aspects of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, but prospects are dim for reaching such a deal before Israel decides Iran has crossed a “red line” in its stockpiling of enriched uranium – perhaps next spring or summer, some analysts say.
Within weeks of Obama’s second inauguration, the Iran nuclear issue could lead to a new paroxysm of tensions and renewed speculation over the dire global consequences of another Middle East war.
Some Middle East experts believe that, the election out of the way, Obama will shift quickly to a more supportive stance toward the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They base their hunch on the assumption that Obama, despite being preoccupied with winning reelection, has kept abreast of how Syria’s civil war has shown signs of spilling into neighboring countries and threatens to engulf what is already the world’s most dangerous region.
But signals out of the White House suggest a continuing reluctance to provide US arms to the rebels. Up to now the Obama administration has largely limited its involvement in Syria to working with the political opposition not directly involved in fighting the war, while limiting support to fighters to nonlethal supplies such as communications equipment.
Concerns linger over whether weapons might fall into the hands of radical Islamists, who seem to be growing in numbers and influence among the rebels. Yet some analysts suggest that Obama might be forced to shift toward more overt cooperation with rebel forces to gain a measure of influence. Otherwise, Syria might fall entirely into the hands of Islamists.
The US has indeed been discussing with NATO allies including Turkey what it would take to impose a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria, but the Pentagon continues to oppose such a step. (Some analysts note that the Pentagon also opposed intervention in Libya that included a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over but was overruled).
Afghanistan and Pakistan
Obama faces the tricky task of drawing down the American military presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, as agreed among NATO partners, while reassuring a problematic 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 Taliban as a means of maintaining a measure of influence in Afghanistan. But Pakistan appears to want to wait to see if arch-rival India increased its influence in Afghanistan as the American role wanes, harboring the militants as a hedge.
Among the questions hanging over US-Afghanistan relations: Will Afghan troops be ready to assume responsibility for the country’s security post-2014? Will the US-Taliban negotiations that never really started ever get off the ground and produce any results? And what will happen to the gains that many Afghans – in particular women and girls – have made in education, health, and stature over the long American presence?
China and Russia
There’s one thing Obama won’t do, and that is to declare China a “currency manipulator” on Jan. 21, as Republican challenger Mitt Romney pledged to do on Day 1 of his administration. But relations with China are likely to take a rough turn in a second Obama term all the same, some Asia experts say, just as they are with another global power, Russia.
China, which is undergoing a once-a-decade leadership change, is suspicious of American intentions behind Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. China sees US involvement in various territorial disputes it has with neighbors as meddling. A powerful China sees an advantage in addressing the disputes on a bilateral basis with smaller countries also claiming the territory in question. It is dismissive of the US position that the territorial claims, largely concentrated in the South China Sea region, should be taken up in a multilateral fashion, where presumably the smaller claimants would benefit from a certain collective power.
At the same time, China sees US initiatives under Obama to strengthen relations with longtime allies and partners in the region, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, as part of a strategy of containment, something the US denies.
China is also suspicious of the Obama administration’s support for democratic advances among China’s neighbors. That particular bone of contention will be raised again later in November when Obama makes a stop in Myanmar (Burma) – the first ever there by a US president – as part of a Southeast Asia tour.
Obama, on what might be called the “Asia Pivot Tour,” will take in the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia, and will stop in Thailand. But by adding a stop in Myanmar, Obama will be celebrating the ongoing transition to democracy of a longtime reclusive military (and China-friendly) dictatorship – something China-watchers say some in Beijing will view as provocative.
As for Russia, Obama is unlikely to have the kind of productive relationship he had with former President Dmitry Medvedev with Vladimir Putin, who returned to the Russian presidency in March. At one point in Obama’s first term, the “reset” of relations he accomplished with Russia under Mr. Medvedev was hailed by numerous experts as Obama’s top foreign-policy achievement. But those days appear to be gone as Russia under Mr. Putin shows signs of becoming increasingly anti-American.
Deep disagreement and mutual suspicion over each power’s aims in Syria are also likely to keep relations on the chilly side.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
An optimistic – perhaps naïve – young president kicked off his first term by announcing with great White House fanfare his first week in office a priority on reaching the holy grail of US diplomacy: a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. Don’t expect a similar initiative week one of Term 2.
The Obama administration is already promising punitive measures against the Palestinians if President Mahmoud Abbas sticks with his plan to seek enhanced status for “Palestine” through the United Nations General Assembly in late November. Besides that, an Israeli election campaign that culminates with voting Jan. 22, the day after Obama’s inauguration, is hardly the moment for a peace-process initiative.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to win those elections. But a renewed mandate for the Israeli leader, far from opening the way to negotiations with the Palestinians, is more frequently seen as providing a mandate for Mr. Netanyahu to launch air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities later in the year if he deems it necessary.
If, as expected, the Israeli leader is triumphant in elections, Netanyahu and Obama – who haven’t had the smoothest of relations – are likely to face new tensions in their relationship. And US-Israel relations, which both leaders insist are unbreakable, could be in for a severe test about what to do with Iran.