Thursday, 8 November 2012

Obama 2012

Even with Florida still in the balance, the battle is finally over

"The best is still to come" was the soundbite which has resonated from Obama's victory speech last night. Time will tell if this is the case, but the facts are that the US public has overwhelmingly supported the status quo in this time of economic trouble. The President remains in office, the Democrats keep the Senate and the  Republicans keep the House of Representatives. In that respect nothing has changed. But with no future election to worry about, will Obama's foreign policy change from the Bush spillover which dominated his first term?

In 2001 George W. Bush faced one of the most dramatic changes in international affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Faced with two falling towers and thousands of dead Bush was faced by a US public desperate for answers, for justice and for vengeance. The result of this was the first term of the War on Terror, 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq. Wars that were supposed to be short interventions to create a change in the Middle East became festering pools of suffering for almost a decade. Tens of thousands died across the Middle East, and by his second term Bush was desperately trying to hold together a mission that was going from bad to worse.

Obama inherited that mission. Bush's surge in Iraq had already stabilised the country ready for a withdrawal Obama only had to keep on target. However, the ongoing mission to attempt to stabilise the Middle East, destroy the leadership of Al-Qaeda and mend relations damaged by the 2003 invasion of Iraq remained the same.

What Obama faced in taking office was a battle between his lofty ideals and promises and reality. His compromise was pragmatic, driving towards aims slowly and cautiously and making no significant and unbalancing changes to the foreign affairs of the second term of Bush.

What did change was so gradual the world's population at large barely noticed it. There was a shift from the Middle East to the Pacific with troop deployments in Australia and a new agreement with Japan over Guam and further military cooperation. Although this shift has been slowed by the Arab Spring and the continued fighting in Syria, it is symbolic enough to prompt China's own challenges for the South and East China Sea. There were significant defense cuts which have placed an emphasis on less of everything, but a greater emphasis on technological and training superiority. Obama has orchestrated a gradual lean to a more impartial role in the Middle East than under Bush, one aided by his faux-pas with Nicholas Sarkozy and the intervention in Libya against a secular dictator on the side of Islamists as well as liberals. More generally there has been a shift away from democratic transition by pressure or force and towards a focus on stability. Transition is now pushed towards supporting stable governments and pushing them towards liberal reform. Again, the Arab Spring was a unexpected reversal of this trend.

And, of course, Osama Bin laden is dead.

However, most of Obama's policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded exponentially, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term? What of 2012-2016?

Well the answer is: Probably much of the same, but don't expect the US foreign policy world to look the same in 2016 to 2008. The track of Obama's presidency has been a gently-gently turn from Bush's policies to Obama's, and the US should look very much like Obama's legacy by the end of the next four years. A turn from the Middle East to East Asia, from military intervention to diplomatic and economic pressure, from antagonism of Muslim states to partnerships based on the national interest of influence.

These policies have already proved fruitful and will continue to do so. Japanese support for military bases was prevented from collapse just long enough to actually step up cooperation important to limit China's expanding Pacific potential. Sanctions in Iran have its economy on the verge of collapse and popular support of Ahmadinejad beginning to turn against him. The intervention in Libya and support for the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions has given Obama political capital there not seen for decades. Despite the Benghazi attacks popular support is actually pro-US, as militant groups were forced out of Eastern towns across the country by anti-extremist protesters. 

That said, just like the Arab Spring revolutions, the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Soviet Union, sudden and unexpected events can throw the best plans into disarray. How Obama deals with potentially disastrous events could change his foreign policy dramatically.
  • Afghanistan: Withdrawal in 2014, if too soon, could devastate the region and NATO's influence.
  • Syria: The conflict must be kept within the country's borders to avoid regional conflict.
  • Iran: Although sanctions are working, should Iran turn to desperate measures or should Israel overplay its hand things could turn very dangerous.
  • Yemen: A potential second Afghanistan/Somalia. Though the risk is smaller should the state collapse, the new front could give extremists a valuable new refuge.
  • South/East China Seas: The competition between the South-Eastern/Eastern Asian powers over the seas is not a battle the US can involve itself in overtly without risking a backlash. However it is one which needs to be carefully monitored and one where soft power could be at its most important.
  • West Africa: The continued rise of Bokko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and other extremist Islamist groups in this region could be a new front in the most need for intervention but with the least popular support for it. So far the US has only been able to give token support for these states, but as things go from bad to worse in Mali and Nigeria this cannot be expected to be the end of the conflicts.
Congratulations Barack Obama, but I don't envy you in the four years to come. You will face a hostile House of Representatives and a demanding public. You will face the challenge of keeping North Africa on your side and yet still combat Islamic extremism, of limiting China without antagonising it, of realising your potential without ceasing to be pragmatic.

Good luck President Obama, you need it.

No comments:

Post a Comment