Obama's term II may set modest goals

The US president hopes to return to his original agenda, but in less overtly ambitious way

Obama's term II may set modest goals

Not quite nine months into his presidency, Barack Obama woke to the news that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize — not for anything yet accomplished, but for the promise that he would end the Iraq war, win the ‘war of necessity’ in Afghanistan, move toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, tackle climate change and engage America’s adversaries.

Yet beyond Iraq, his first-term accomplishments from that list are sparse. In a fractured world, President Obama struggled to define a grand strategy for America’s role, apart from preserving its pre-eminence while relying increasingly on a changing cast of partners.

As Obama begins his second term, aides and confidants say he is acutely aware that his ambitious agenda to restore America’s influence and image in the world stalled almost as soon as the prize was awarded. But the president has indicated that he plans to return to his original agenda, though he has hinted it may be in a different, less overtly ambitious way.

Bitter experience — from getting the most modest arms control agreement through the Senate his first year, trying and failing to engage leaders in Iran and North Korea, discovering his lack of leverage over Egypt, Pakistan and Israel, and finding Afghanistan to be a costly waste of American lives and resources -- is driving him to a strategy reminiscent of one of his Republican predecessors, president Dwight D Eisenhower.

It is a strategy in which Obama will try to redirect world events subtly, rather than turning to big treaties, big military interventions and big aid packages. “The appeal of the Eisenhower approach is that it had a big element of turning inward, of looking to rebuilding strength at home, of conserving American power,” said one of Obama’s senior national security advisers, who would not agree to be quoted by name.

Whether this approach can work is very much an open question. His early forays into covert action and lightning-quick strikes -- like the fast war in Libya or the cyberwar against Iran -- have set back adversaries, but the satisfactions of striking with a ‘light footprint’ have usually been temporary at best.

Obama’s questions during Situation Room sessions, some of his current and former aides say, seem to
reflect a concern that his first term was spent putting out fires, rather than building lasting institutions.

President Franklin D Roosevelt and president Harry S Truman solidified America’s post-World War II role by helping create the United Nations, the international financial institutions and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe; president John F Kennedy emerged from the Cuban Missile Crisis with treaties limiting the spread of nuclear weapons; the first president George Bush lured new allies from the ruins of the Soviet Union.

By comparison, Obama’s biggest accomplishments have been largely defensive: a full withdrawal from Iraq and devastating strikes against the core leadership of Al Qaeda. The president’s national security adviser, Thomas E Donilon, has argued in speeches since Obama’s re-election that in the first term the president built a broader alliance against Iran than any of his predecessors; that is true, but so far it has not moved the Iranians to limit their nuclear drive.

The US has variously offered to increase aid to Egypt or restrict it if the country heads off on an illiberal path. So far neither approach has given Obama leverage in influencing the new government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. A promising start in building an economic and political partnership with China has devolved into an argument over whether the United States is seeking to contain China’s ambitions.

If there is a big strategic bet in Obama’s second term, it may be that Asia is that place. The huge, unexpected burst in oil and gas production in the United States has bolstered  Obama’s conviction that the United States has an opportunity to extract itself from an overdependence on events in the Middle East. In Asia, he has found a region more welcoming to American influence, largely because a greater American presence — meaning more naval ships and more investment — can quietly counterbalance China’s rising power.

Obama’s focus on Asia has reinforced his interest in the Eisenhower era. After the Korean War, Americans simply wanted to bring the troops home and focus on growth. Eisenhower had publicly committed to both balancing the budget and containing growing threats around the world, while in secret he began a broad rethinking of American national security called Project Solarium.

Just as Obama has privately worried about being manipulated by generals who were trying to lengthen the American involvement in Afghanistan, Eisenhower left office warning of the ‘military-industrial complex’ that he feared would dominate American decision making.


Greater awareness

At the same time, those who work with Obama, and parse his questions in Situation Room debates over the ability of the United States to influence events in places like Syria or Mali or North Korea, say they sense in him a greater awareness than he had four years ago of the limits of American influence.

That is a product of Obama’s bitter experience in 2009, when he yielded to advice from the military to send a surge of tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan. He regretted it almost instantly. The move to an “Afghan good enough” strategy followed, with minimal goals and a quicker withdrawal of troops. Ever since, he has been hesitant to use traditional power in traditional ways.

“He has got to find the happy medium between not committing us to a decade-long ground war and choosing not to do anything,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was the head of the State Department’s policy planning operation for Obama’s first two years in office and has urged him to intervene more strongly in humanitarian disasters.

In what Obama once called the “war of necessity,” in Afghanistan, the complaint heard more often is that Obama has abandoned any pretense of accomplishment in favour of accelerating the withdrawal.

“The situation is obviously not very confidence-inspiring,” Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, said in an interview last week. “A responsible transition means that you have achieved your objectives and then you leave. It’s not ‘We leave in January.’ It’s ‘We leave when the objectives are achieved.’ ”

And what of the grand initiatives? A proposal for a very large reduction in deployed nuclear weapons has been in the hands of the White House for months, but the president has not acted on it.  Obama and vice president Joseph R Biden Jr. promised a new push to win passage of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was defeated during the Clinton administration. They have never submitted it to the Senate.

“We were assured by president Obama when he was elected that the US would ratify this CTBT,” Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, said. “But somehow, it has not happened.”
Given the composition of the Senate, it is not likely to happen in a second term, either. So  Obama, his aides say, will have to find another way; like Eisenhower, he will have to redirect American policy quietly, from the Oval Office.

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