Geopolitical Issues for Obama’s Second Term (2013-2017)

When Time magazine selected Barack Obama as their 2012 person of the year, they noted that the re-elected president is seeking to emphasize domestic issues in his second term. While this emphasis may come about, it is highly likely that foreign affairs will occupy much of Obama’s time after his second inauguration.

Following is a quick preview of seven key geopolitical issues that will likely occupy much of Obama’s agenda. What is remarkable is how few of these issues were intensively debated in the long 2012 election campaign.

  1. America’s fiscal health
    The early January deal on tax rates is only the beginning of efforts to restore balance to America’s public finances. If the president is successful in brokering a grand bargain with Republicans, defense and foreign affairs spending will inevitably decline in a significant way. Contrary to the perceptions of many Americans, the U.S. does not spend a great deal of money on international aid and non-military foreign affairs. It is particularly the Department of Defense that would have to adjust to an earlier era of austerity.
  2. Climate change
    In 2012, candidate Obama was stunningly quiet about the ongoing climate crisis. After the big letdown at the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, world leaders committed to keep working on a comprehensive plan in South Africa in late 2011. Because of the Great Recession, and a market-driven shift to cleaner fuel sources, American greenhouse emissions are now lower than when Obama took office. Much hard work remains, and major battles loom over EPA regulations and U.S. participation in an international climate change framework.
  3. Iran
    It is quite possible that Iran will develop deployable nuclear weapons during the second Obama term. The real threat may be a chaotic nuclear arms race in the Middle East. As Ray Takeyh and others have argued, a nuclear Iran could be contained. Other consequences of a nuclear Iran may be harder to address.
  4. Political reform in China
    China is on track to become the world’s largest economy by 2020, if not several years before. That progress, and China’s growing influence around the world is directly dependent upon the country’s political stability. China’s new leaders will be severely tested over the next four years to manage political dissent and information flows.
  5. Transition in Afghanistan
    Though Obama did not start the war in Afghanistan, he took direct ownership with the surge of 30,000 additional soldiers into this failed state. The key issue is whether political reconciliation can occur with a sufficient number of the Taliban.
  6. Europe’s future
    Europe starts 2013 with some signs of hope. Notably, borrowing rates are sharply lower for most of the region’s governments. Yet, centrifugal forces in the European Union remain strong, and it is quite plausible that President Obama will have to help manage the disintegration of the EU.
  7. Illegal drugs and the Americas
    For now, immigration has receded as a defining issue in relations between the United States and its southern neighbors. It is not clear how interested Obama will be in proposing new solutions for the drug-related violence and instability confronting Latin America.

The Geopolitical Vulnerabilities of Israel

War has returned to Israel and Palestine. At least every few years, Israel is involved in active, intense warfare on its northern or southern borders. And since Hamas gained control over the Gaza Strip in 2006, Israel’s southern flank has been particularly active. Now that anti-Israel elements in Gaza have acquired more sophisticated weaponry, and given wider political changes in the region, Israel’s precarious geopolitical situation has become even more perilous.

Wall Separating Israel from the West Bank

This is a section of the wall (“security barrier”) separating Israel and the West Bank (of the Jordan River). Photo credit: Ian Burt (Creative Commons license).

Given its out-sized importance in the Middle East, Israel is often perceived to be much larger than it is. Admittedly, the size of Israel depends on the definition of its boundaries, which are disputed. Any “fact” about Israel’s size is therefore dependent upon what boundaries are assumed (see, for example, this pro-Israel site). If the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (roughly along the lines of the 1967 ceasefire) are excluded, Israel’s physical area is about 21,000 square kilometers (or 8,000 square miles). (The estimated population for this area is about 8 million.) That area is about one-third less than that of Belgium. Or, to use an American reference point, Israel is about the size of a smaller New England state (such as Vermont or New Hampshire).

So what does Israel’s size have to do with the current war raging in and around the dense urban cluster that is Gaza? Simply put, Israel’s small size makes it exceedingly vulnerable to attack. That is nothing new. What is new is Gaza militants’ acquisition of longer-ranged rockets, which are capable of targeting Israel’s core population and economic centers, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Iran seems to be a key link in Hamas’ acquisition of these rockets.

Old City Jerusalem

Photo credit: acroll (Creative Commons license).

One need not be pro-Israeli to recognize the increasingly precarious geopolitical context for the majority Jewish state. Whatever Israel’s past collective sins against the Arabs, the country now exists in a much more difficult regional situation, not least due to political upheaval in Egypt. Israelis persist in a heightened state of war readiness because they must. The United Nations cannot ensure Israel’s survival. Only hard-nosed realism can.

Obama, Romney, and Schieffer Missed Much of the World

On Monday, October 22, 2012, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama squared off in the last of three presidential election debates. The single theme of the last debate was foreign policy. Moderator Bob Schieffer (and the candidates) mostly debated U.S. foreign policy toward North Africa, the Middle East, and Af-Pak, or the core of the Islamic world. There was almost no discussion of Latin America, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Southeast Asia, or Oceania. What a pity. The graphic below is suggestive of the places discussed in the debate. The size of the labels indicates the prominence of these countries and regions in the debate.

Iran’s Political Circus Continues

Last week, Iran’s currency, the rial, lost more than 30 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. Iran has experienced exchange rate volatility before, but last week’s drop was enough to prompt widespread protests by more than 10,000 merchants. The currency drop is just one more chapter for a political system that can best be described as circus-like.

In addition to jolting economic and security events, Iran is accustomed to a politics of illusion and mirage; political relationships are often not as they may seem on the surface. True, even established liberal democracies have moments of political surprise and subterfuge. In Iran, though, a system dominated by a council of Islamic clerics is a hall of mirrors for average citizens and expert observers alike.

To what extent are the economic policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responsible for the slide in the Iranian currency? To what extent are international economic sanctions fomenting macro-economic crisis? How free is Ahmadinejad’s government to pursue its own course on domestic economic issues? How much patience will (younger) Iranians have with the supreme council of clerics? Have ruling elites over-played their hand in pushing the domestic economy to the brink over its nuclear program?

Various Iranian experts do not believe that the country is facing an imminent political revolution. These experts argue that continued exports of energy, an increasingly effective clampdown on the Internet, and the formidable coercive power of the Iranian Revolutionary guard provide the regime enough resources to survive. As in so many other cases, regime change in Iran may ultimately rest on the question of the loyalty of the government’s soldiers.

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism (Syria, Iraq, and Regional Contagions)

Nine months after the full withdrawal of American soldiers, Iraq is being squeezed on many fronts. Internally, a Sunni-based insurgency persists. Troubles remain in part of the northern Kurdish region, leading to Turkish military incursions. Tensions between neighboring Iran and much of the world remain high. Oh, and there is Syria. The problems in Syria are a potent reminder of just how unstable sectarian politics can be, particularly given the cultural geography of the Middle East.

Though Iraq’s leaders profess to be democrats, they seem to be moving in a direction of greater support for the decidedly un-democratic Assad government in Syria. Planes delivering weapons to Assad have been transiting Iraqi air space from Iran, despite the efforts of U.S. and other diplomats to halt the flow. Established democracies (in the West) also support authoritarian governments at times, out of geopolitical realism. Given his recent tactics, though, Bashar al-Assad is no longer a run-of-the-mill dictator.

The bigger picture is about much more than the fate of a political dynasty in Syria. As others have noted over the last year, the Syrian uprising – unlike those in North Africa – has the potential to instigate a catastrophic regional contagion. Syria’s marginalized Sunni majority is the core of the anti-Assad forces. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni minority remains uneasy after the upheaval that began in 2003. Elsewhere – in places like Bahrain and Yemen – Sunni-Shiite tensions are palpable.

It is easy for outsiders and Westerners to recognize the flaws of sectarian politics in the Middle East. For many Muslims, though, the sectarian contest is the fundamental dimension of domestic political life. And, if one does not accept some level of separation between mosque and state, there is little space for democratic compromise.

The rest of the world will soon find out whether the Syrian conflict can be contained. Even if it is, the specter of sectarianism will persist in the region.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.