The just-concluded presidential election was fought over jobs and the economy. Foreign policy was largely an afterthought.
Overall, the differences on foreign policy between the two US political parties have not been nearly so sharp as the domestic divide, though some Republicans continue to be disturbed by the Obama administration’s response to the murder of four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11.
President Obama may well have a freer hand on foreign policy than he will with the GOP-led House on domestic issues. If this proves true, where is his attention needed most?
First, a caveat. An unexpected event could always relegate the president’s best-laid plans to the dustbin, just as George W. Bush’s first term was instantly and profoundly shaped by the 9/11 attacks. Another terrorist assault on the United States would immediately dominate any president’s agenda.
But assuming no sudden crisis arises, here are some of what should be Mr. Obama’s top priorities:
Replace your secretary of State. Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced that she would like to leave her post early next year. Appointing someone of equal stature and ability will be an important goal. Many good candidates look to be available. Several are Republicans and could serve to reinforce a commitment to bipartisanship on behalf of the Obama administration. Those worthy of serious consideration include retired Gen. Colin Powell, former China Ambassador and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., and former Sen. Richard Lugar.
Within his own party, the president should consider calling on Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who has traveled extensively overseas as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. UN Ambassador Susan Rice would seem to be a logical candidate, but her fumbled explanation of the attack on the US Consulate in Libya might cause problems at a Senate confirmation hearing.
Syria. After more than 36,000 deaths in the continued fighting between rebels and troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, finding the way forward to peace will be challenging. The president should consider increasing arms and munitions aid to the rebels while also carefully choosing which rebel forces to back. The right forces should offer the best opportunity to create a single cohesive opposition that would be ready to assume power when that moment arrives.
Afghanistan. Leaving gracefully by the end of 2014, as the president has promised, won’t be easy. Knowing that a peace deal between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban was in place would make it much easier. So would Afghanistan holding clean elections next year. The collapse into civil war of a country the US has spent so many years and so many billions of dollars to support would leave a black mark on the president’s record – and would be a tragic statement about the lives sacrificed in fighting this war.
Iran. The economic sanctions appear to be working, and there’s still time to cut a deal before a military option goes to the front burner. But Iran will leap to the top of the president’s foreign-policy agency if negotiations fail and Tehran is seen to be close to deploying a nuclear weapon.
Where would Obama rather spend his foreign-policy time? Probably on Asia, where the US-China relationship becomes more important all the time. The two countries are at once economic rivals and massive, interdependent trade partners. China continues to broaden its influence in the region. The US has many allies in the area, from Japan to Australia.
Obama will leave shortly on a trip to Southeast Asia to further strengthen ties there, stopping in Thailand and Cambodia, where he will attend a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He’ll also make a historic first trip for a US president to Myanmar (formerly Burma), whose military dictatorship is taking encouraging early steps toward democracy and opening up to the world.
He has a full plate, and needs to choose his priorities wisely.