President Obama should focus on three foreign policy challenges, post-election, to finish fights that began on his watch. These include setting rules for cyberspace behavior with Russia and other nations, pressing on toward Raqqa, Syria, and the destruction of the Islamic State, and a “Hail Mary” effort to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal during the lame-duck session of Congress.
The most delicate challenge during the transition involves Russia, whose pre-election hacking of Democratic Party websites was the most destabilizing and potentially dangerous great-power confrontation in decades. The next president will have to decide how to rebalance the U.S.-Russia relationship on a longer-term basis, but Obama can help shape the rules for cyberspace.
Obama personally discussed cyberspace issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a private meeting during the Group of 20 summit meeting in China in early September. He confirmed at a news conference later that they talked “about cybersecurity, generally,” but he wouldn’t comment on “specific investigations that are still live and active.”
Obama set the right agenda at that news conference when he said, “What we cannot do is have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the Wild, Wild West, where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in competition — unhealthy competition or conflict through these means.”
The United States was clearer in an Oct. 7 public statement by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, which stated that “Russia’s senior-most officials” had authorized cyberattacks that were “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
The United States has not yet taken any covert action to respond to Russian cyberattacks, contrary to some news reports. That’s because Obama wanted to avoid further pre-election destabilization and to respond “in a way that leaves the possibility of escalation limited,” said one senior administration official. But any post-election Russian attempts to undermine the results or sow new confusion in cyberspace might trigger U.S. action, several officials cautioned.
Obama should continue this delicate process of establishing a framework for mutual cyber-deterrence with Russia. There’s no higher priority in his remaining time in office.
Delivering on the promise to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State may be impossible before Obama leaves office Jan. 20. But U.S. commanders said last weekend that they are pressing ahead with the battle to take Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, despite disagreements among U.S. coalition partners about the composition of the force that will clear and hold the city.
Obama appears to have followed the advice of Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, to “go with what works,” by relying on a Kurdish-dominated umbrella group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in the squeeze on Raqqa, despite opposition from Turkey. This is an expedient decision: Roughly 25,000 SDF fighters are ready, while a Free Syrian Army force supported by both Turkey and the United States is said to need more months of training. The Turks don’t like the SDF coalition because it’s built around a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which the Turks regard as a terrorist group.
U.S. officials think the Raqqa timetable is urgent, and not just to make progress by Inauguration Day. This is a war of momentum, and commanders say it’s crucial to continue the recent progress made in Mosul. As long as Raqqa remains in Islamic State control, it could be the launching pad for deadly terrorist attacks. A senior French official underlined Friday the urgency of the Raqqa campaign to European nations that have been hit by terrorism.
Obama will leave a messy problem for his successor if he can’t diminish tension with Turkey. One approach was suggested Sunday by a senior representative of Iraqi Kurdistan and its Turkish-backed leader, President Masoud Barzani. This official said in a telephone interview that Turkish fears about the Raqqa campaign would be eased by the participation of a Barzani-trained Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Rojava Peshmerga, which might operate separately from the YPG but under overall U.S. command.
Obama’s final post-election challenge is to somehow pass the Trans- Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation pact that’s the symbolic centerpiece of his once-ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia. Obama has told Asian leaders that he thinks he can muster the votes, if the Republican leadership cooperates. Failure to get the deal passed would be a huge strategic victory for China, the White House rightly argues.
Obama’s presidency is almost history, after Tuesday’s vote. But he could still accomplish three big things that would shape the world in 2017 and beyond.
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