Foreign affairs: Does Obama have the grit?

Foreign affairs: Does Obama have the grit?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The global situation has gotten more and more complicated for the United States as explosions continue to erupt —figuratively, politically, and militarily — throughout the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

In addition to the breakup of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, soldiers are being attacked in Afghanistan; airports are under siege in Pakistan; the Assad government continues to blithely continue its merry program of destroying any and all opponents of the regime; radical Islamists are creating total havoc in Iraq; and terrorists appear to be having a field day throughout the region at the expense of a feckless West 

Now there is a genuine possibility that the very Iraqi regime for which the United States lost 4,500 soldiers and billions in U.S. treasure may be driven from power by militant Sunni insurgents who are driving on to Baghdad virtually without opposition from the U.S. trained forces.

Ironically, the one bright spot might well be the Iran nuclear negotiations, which may be moving toward some form of positive resolution. (The cynics and true skeptics are warning that Iran must be proceeding on this new course of action either because they have achieved their goal, are undergoing serious internal unrest, or have a dangerous surprise waiting at the end of the negotiations.) Some of the latest analysts are now even suggesting that the Iraqi crisis will accelerate the talks and even create a joint U.S.-Iranian effort to hold off the radical Sunnis.

Historically, the lame duck years of any president’s tenure leaves him most effective only in the areas of foreign policy. The domestic gridlock typical of this period was only exacerbated by the primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, which all but guarantees that Obama’s entire domestic program for the next two and half years will be subjected to constant fights and battles over appropriations, debt ceilings, and other mundane necessities of governance. Yet it is precisely in the arena of foreign policy — where presidents historically have the greatest leeway —that the Obama administration has not demonstrated effective leadership. 

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Tom Friedman asked about the nature of Obama’s foreign policy, and suggested the president was hobbled by “an exhausted U.S. public,” an “economic recession sapping defense spending,” and intractable problems that defy neat military solutions. What Friedman did not address — and which is critical to the entire discussion — is whether Obama is willing to make hard decisions on national security and foreign policy. To do so requires a detachment from the political world and an acceptance of the fact that you will never please everyone. 

In dealing with Congress or in negotiating political issues, even within his own party, the president can escape crises with some finesse, although not satisfying his critics. National security and foreign policy require an ability and willingness to make decisions which are unpopular, disappointing, and frustrating — at best — to many factions. The process demands a decisive hand and confident vision. It stresses self-confidence and a willingness to take chances; something Obama consistently has not demonstrated. 

Given the litany of issues raised above plus the continuing confrontation with Russia in the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the next two years present daunting challenges even for a more activist oriented President. For example: 

• Should the President begin supplying Syrian opposition fighters with significant military supplies?

• Should the United States give the Maliki government in Iraq air support and/or drones to repel the Al-Qaida driven rebel forces now moving on Bagdad? 

• Will the president continue the firm withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan especially given the growing chaos in Pakistan and now in Iraq?

• Can the administration accept the new Egyptian Government of President Sisi, despite the fact that it is a clear reversion to the spirit of the Mubarak years?

• How much leeway will the administration give to the Palestinian Authority as it integrates Hamas into its government? 

• Will the United States push for Palestinian elections and then accept the results, even if Hamas defeats Fatah?

• How rigorous ought the United States and its allies be with Iran’s compliance during the continuing nuclear talks? Is the president even willing to ratchet up sanctions against Iran, given the Russian participation in the P5 +1 group?

• Will the president be willing to redeploy U.S. troops to Europe without significant budgetary increases, even prior to the Afghanistan troop withdrawal this winter?

It remains to be seen how he meets these challenges successfully.

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