Even before his election victory is officially certified, President Obama faces a gantlet of foreign-policy challenges that will test his administration even as it seeks to focus attention on the economy and a looming budget showdown with Congress.
Administration officials and policy analysts say Obama will almost certainly be compelled to act before Inauguration Day to deal with crises flaring across the Middle East, from Syria’s 20-month-old civil war to the escalating nuclear standoff with Iran.
At the same time, the administration must navigate a dangerous, logistically complex military drawdown in Afghanistan while dealing with a succession of political and financial storms sweeping Europe, Africa and Asia.
Obama faces an uncertain landscape in the Middle East, where the United States is seeking to reinvent its relationships with Arab stalwart Egypt and revolutionary protege Libya, even as the upheaval of the Arab Spring revolutions continues. At the same time, the White House confronts a newly assertive, nuclear-armed North Korea and increasingly suspicious, nationalistic governments in Moscow and Beijing.
The stew of foreign-policy problems facing the second Obama administration is as vexing as any faced by a White House in recent memory — a mix of “migraine headaches and root canals,” said Aaron David Miller, a State Department adviser to Democratic and Republican administrations. For the president, he said, there are few easy choices, recognizable opportunities or even obvious legacy issues.
“All of this is occurring against the backdrop of real concerns about the global economy and America’s own debt bomb,” said Miller, a vice president and Middle East policy scholar at the Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank. “And on top of it all is a U.S. public exhausted by costly wars and a diminished American street credibility around the world.”
Obama faces particular urgency over his dealings with Syria, where the increasingly sectarian conflict has spread to neighboring countries and served as a magnet for radical Islamist fighters and ever-larger quantities of weapons.
Arab leaders have called on the White House to act quickly after the election to support rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Yet, despite periodic reports that the administration is rethinking its Syria strategy, prospects for a more muscular U.S. role appear uncertain. Senior White House officials say they remain convinced that it is a bad idea.
Obama has repeatedly rejected the possibility of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. The Pentagon, while saying it has prepared a range of options, remains firmly opposed even to establishing a no-fly zone, which Defense experts say would require too much air power and risk unacceptable civilian casualties in Syria. NATO and other allies are similarly cool to the notion of a Libya-style military intervention.
Turkey and other Muslim-majority countries have pushed for stronger U.S. leadership in the loose coalition of countries trying to resolve the Syrian crisis. Yet none of Syria’s neighbors has advocated foreign military intervention without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council.
The main U.S. effort on Syria is trying to help the rebels forge a cohesive, unified command structure that could become the foundation for a future, post-Assad government. The White House has refused to support the creation of a protected buffer zone inside Syria along the Turkish border, insisting instead that rebels defend territory they now hold in the northern part of the country.
But pressure is building on the administration to take firm action to prevent a jihadist-led government in Damascus after Assad falls.
“I believe President Obama in his second term will be more assertive, perhaps from the first day after the election, not waiting for inauguration, to increase the lethality and the amount of weaponry going to the opposition in Syria,” said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In Iran, meanwhile, White House officials are scrambling to grasp what could be the last chance for a nuclear deal to stave off a military strike and possibly avert a new Middle East war. Despite a deepening economic crisis in Iran — triggered in part by international sanctions orchestrated by the United States and its allies — its leaders have not yet signaled that they are prepared to negotiate restrictions on the nuclear program.
Former policy advisers and Iran experts say Obama is inclined to push for a “grand bargain” with Iran between now and the spring of 2013. If the effort fails, the likelihood of a military strike — perhaps by Israel — will soar, the officials said. In the meantime, the administration seeks to ramp up the pressure through sanctions and covert action.
In Afghanistan, Obama faces a Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for the withdrawal of combat troops from the country. But it remains unclear whether Afghan forces will be prepared to assume responsibility for safeguarding the country by then, and the shape of future U.S.-Afghan relations is far from certain.
There has been virtually no movement for the past 10 months on nascent peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, and administration officials are pessimistic about a resumption of the talks they once hoped would lead to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held since 2009 by Afghan militants in Pakistan. Although the Taliban have rejected direct talks with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the administration maintains modest hope that Karzai will step up his efforts in this direction.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.