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Experts Say Obama Faces Tougher Challenges Abroad

Nov. 11, 2012 - 12:47PM   |  
By DEFENSE NEWS STAFF   |   Comments
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the White House on Nov. 9.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the White House on Nov. 9. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images)
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Officials and policy experts in Europe, Asia and Israel say newly re-elected President Barack Obama has a window to make progress on his foreign agenda, but tough challenges await. Still, many described Obama as pragmatic and strategic, and unlikely to be driven by emotion or to stray far from his first term’s ambitions.

In the U.K., Robin Niblett, the director at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said Obama likely will find himself increasingly preoccupied with dangerous developments shaped by the foreign policies from his first term.

Iran, relations with China and the fight against al-Qaida are all “likely to become harder to manage rather than easier to manage in his second term,” Niblett said.

“There is a real risk that a minor naval altercation between Chinese and Japanese vessels patrolling the waters off the contested Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands could spill into a more serious military stand-off. ... The Obama administration has been at pains to stress that its pivot to Asia is diplomatic and multilateral rather than military, but maritime disputes and the intense competition over resources in the South China Sea will likely force the U.S. into taking sides in ways that it deftly avoided in its first term,” he said in a statement.

The Chatham House director said the Obama administration will be unable to sustain its ambiguity over Iran’s nuclear program, but may decide on a policy of sanctions and containment if unconvinced a military strike would have a lasting effect on Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.

“Obama is a pragmatist when it comes to the use of force,” Niblett said. “If he judges that pre-emptive military action holds little chance of doing more than setting Iran’s nuclear program back a few years [the U.S. military view], then he may decide that it is better to step back from his pre-election pledge to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and move to a strategy of sanctions plus containment of Iran, whatever the effects on the U.S. bilateral relationship with Israel.”

UAV strikes against the al-Qaida leadership and their infiltration beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan also will challenge Obama, Niblett said.

“Can the administration afford to disengage from this continuing evolution of the terrorist threat, or will the president expand his drone campaign ever more broadly in his second term? ... What impact will this have on America’s international reputation and credibility?”

Sequestration Looms

Trevor Taylor, head of defense industry and society at the Royal United Services Institute, another London think tank, said Obama’s re-election probably leaves the U.S. in a better position to tackle the sequestration issue, but he sees little radical change regarding defense.

“Obviously, the number one issue is sequestration,” he said. “It’s clearly a source of concern that the House of Representatives will be of a different political color to the president, and the extent this will impede effective action on the deficit, whether it’s sequestration or the bigger picture about reducing the deficit with changes to the tax system.

“There is some assurance the U.S. has elected someone who had built up familiarity with international affairs and defense relations, rather than having someone starting from a low base on these topics, but I don’t think it makes a massive difference. ... There is no clear way forward until sequestration is resolved, but the uncertainty would have been enhanced had [Republican candidate Mitt] Romney been elected,” Taylor said.

In France, Obama’s re-election was welcomed as a positive for U.S. foreign policy.

“The re-election allows Obama to finish the work,” said Loic Tribot La Spiere, chief executive of think tank Centre d’Etude et Prospective Stratégique.

“He has another two years for the withdrawal from Afghanistan and to close Guantanamo, at last. After two years, he will be less effective, because he will be in an election period,” Tribot La Spiere said.

In foreign policy, the new mandate puts Obama in a “more mature position” to work on a settlement of the Palestinian territories, and on Iran, he said. The U.S. supports Israel, but also must move ahead on the Palestinian issue, Tribot La Spiere said.

Domestically, Obama can relaunch efforts on job creation and tackle social problems, he said.

Regarding the close popular vote, Tribot La Spiere said, “People say the election win was a narrow one. I say, he was re-elected. That sends a strong signal. People say the glass is half empty, I say it is half full.”

Gabriel Serville, the member of Parliament for French Guiana, said, “I am convinced that this success is the result of his great leadership, his faculty to bring people together and his promotion of human values. We hope he will contribute to bring peace in the most troubled areas of this world, especially in Palestine along with President François Hollande.”

Hubert Vedrine, former foreign minister and the man who coined the term “hyperpower” for the U.S., said, “Obama’s re-election is an excellent opportunity for Europeans to play a more significant role on the international stage. I only hope they know how to seize it.”

In a personal message to Obama, Hollande said, “France and the United States share common values. I am convinced that during your new mandate, we will further strengthen our partnership to work toward the return of economic growth in our countries, to fight against unemployment and to find solutions to the crises that threaten us, particularly in the Middle East.”

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said that “America is stronger” with Obama’s victory, adding that his re-election “represents further opportunities for the European Union and Italy.”

By contrast, Italian defense group Finmeccanica was widely seen by commentators as being pro-Romney, in the hope he would beef up defense spending. But one analyst disagreed.

“Obama has learned that the world is complicated and that the U.S. cannot move alone,” said Michele Nones, head of the security and defense department at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a Rome think tank.

“He has also learned more about his allies, more than Romney knows,” Nones said. “If the U.S. continues to participate in global governance and if Obama asks more from those partners, I believe the Italian defense industry will find occasions to enter the U.S. market.”

Obama’s re-election also could mean the U.S. will continue to shift its focus from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific, according to security policy experts from two leading German think tanks.

In the future, Europe may have to bear more responsibility in the world, these experts said.

“The Europeans will have to take care of the security in their own region,” said Svenja Sinjen, security expert of the German Council on Foreign Relations and head of the Future Forum Berlin program.

Markus Kaim, head of security policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, sees the Libya campaign last year as a guide for future expectations, and which could be repeated in the west African state of Mali, with the U.S. only contributing specialized capabilities. Europe does not always need the U.S. or NATO to deal with every crisis at its periphery, he said.

This might place greater expectations on Europe and Germany.

“Germany will either be asked more often, or one has to reduce its own expectations and does not understand oneself as a security power,” Kaim said.

Kaim said a Romney presidency likely would not have approached Atlantic security relations in a much different manner than Obama has.

“The differences are not so great, because both have to deal with the same basic conditions,” he said.

However, Sinjen said Romney would have applied more pressure on the Europeans concerning their defense budgets.

“A presidency of Mitt Romney would have had the advantage, that the defense political debate between the U.S. and Europe would have been fueled again,” she said. “At least he would have asked for the European defense budgets not to decline any further, but rather to increase them again.”

Israel and Obama

In Israel, Netanyahu’s long-strained relations with Obama, and his widely perceived support for Romney, fueled fears of White House retribution on core security issues, including the Iranian nuclear threat and a peace deal with the Palestinians.

“When people are fighting for their political life, and there are perceptions that the other side is undermining their chances, it cannot be easily forgotten,” Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, told an early morning, post-election gathering at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

He added, “How serious it will be depends on how we handle it. I perceive this president to be very strategic. I don’t expect him to be carried away by emotion.”

Dan Shapiro, Washington’s ambassador to Israel, sought to allay Israeli concerns, insisting that Obama’s second term would continue to strengthen Washington’s unshakable commitment to Israeli security.

“It’s unfortunate and kind of ridiculous, this notion that there’s going to be a deterioration or time for revenge,” Shapiro told the Nov. 7 gathering. “The president is a very strategic thinker. He’s not someone whose policies are governed by emotion and politics.”

Nevertheless, as Israel heads into its own elections Jan. 22, Obama’s re-election, along with Democratic Party gains in the U.S. Senate, could galvanize support for Netanyahu’s centrist and left-of-center political rivals.

“The president prefers not to go to war, and I think that Israel’s position is that it would be preferable to achieve one’s goals [preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons] without resorting to military action,” Shapiro said.

On the Palestinian issue, Shapiro said a negotiated peace deal would be high on Obama’s second-term agenda, although the White House is likely to wait until after Israeli elections before renewing mediation efforts.

In a Nov. 7 statement, Netanyahu said the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States is stronger than ever. “I will continue to work with President Obama in order to ensure the vital security interests of Israeli citizens,” he said.

Taiwan’s Qualms

Officially, Taiwan’s government saluted Obama’s re-election, but elements within the military are still unhappy with the administration’s decision to deny Taiwan’s request for 66 F-16C/D fighter jets. Hopes were raised when elements within Romney’s foreign policy team promised Taiwan officials the fighters would be released if Romney won.

Still, Taiwan’s military has benefited from Obama’s first four years in office. Since 2008, the U.S. government has released $18.7 billion worth of weapons and other defense items to Taiwan.

In a Nov. 7 statement released by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the “government firmly believes that the Obama administration will continue to work with Taiwan on the basis of the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances, so as to ensure security in the Taiwan Strait and peace in the region.”

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Andrew Chuter in London, Tom Kington in Rome, Wendell Minnick in Taipei, Albrecht Müller in Bonn, Barbara Opall-Rome in Tel Aviv and Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.

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