Foreign policy problems facing the Obama administration.
March 6, 2012 11:19 AM   Subscribe

What are the main foreign policy problems facing Obama and his administration right now?
posted by espada0 to Law & Government (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by chillmost at 11:20 AM on March 6, 2012

The Eurozone
posted by b1tr0t at 11:21 AM on March 6, 2012

Israel, who will do whatever the hell it works about Iran and American will have to side with it, no matter what.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:28 AM on March 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd expect Pakistan is still a challenge.
posted by gimonca at 11:38 AM on March 6, 2012

Seriously. Without a clearer idea of what you're after, this question will take weeks to answer. The media want to hype Iran, but there are foreign policy problems literally world-wide, and all are probably just as important as another. Mexico, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Russia, China, Burma, Sudan, Maldives, Colombia...etc. etc. etc.
posted by General Malaise at 11:38 AM on March 6, 2012

Which problems do you think, then, are the most challenging and the most urgent?
posted by espada0 at 11:46 AM on March 6, 2012

> Which problems do you think, then, are the most challenging and the most urgent?

It would help if you clarified what your aim is in asking this. The Obama administration, like any presidency, has irons in many fires and the president or his delegates are working on lots of interrelated issues every day.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:48 AM on March 6, 2012

I'm asking this because of precisely what you stated, the United States is involved with an inextricably wide range of issues, each multifaceted and often overlapping. However there must be some priorities set in place, as in a "hierarchy of importance" when it comes to dealing with foreign policy issues. Also, its not unreasonable to say that the US government puts more attention and strategic resources into particular issues because such issues are seen as a crisis or serve a long term political interest.
posted by espada0 at 11:58 AM on March 6, 2012

Journals like Foreign Policy cover things like this in great depth. Is it just opinions of mefites you're after?
posted by rtha at 12:00 PM on March 6, 2012

You could also follow the official White House blog. Granted, they're not going to provide a lot of deep insight into what's going on behind closed doors, but in general they telegraph their main foreign policy thrust.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:03 PM on March 6, 2012

rtha: Yes I just want to see what you guys think, I know many journals cover this topic but I am curious to look at this from a non-journalistic/non-interest based point of view.
posted by espada0 at 12:12 PM on March 6, 2012

For the United States administration, I would put them in the following order:

1. Afghanistan, due the amount of resources we have and are invested and the moving timeline for exiting.
2. Eurozone debt crisis, currently centered around Greece.

Somewhere below that is the middle east political issue of the week - Israel, Palestine, Iran, Pakistan.
posted by seppyk at 12:26 PM on March 6, 2012

there must be some priorities set in place, as in a "hierarchy of importance" when it comes to dealing with foreign policy issues. Also, its not unreasonable to say that the US government puts more attention and strategic resources into particular issues because such issues are seen as a crisis or serve a long term political interest. ... I know many journals cover this topic but I am curious to look at this from a non-journalistic/non-interest based point of view.

I don't know what the administration's priorities are. I simply know what the "big issues" are right now and which ones seem more complicated and are more immediate crises than others.
posted by deanc at 12:42 PM on March 6, 2012

However there must be some priorities set in place, as in a "hierarchy of importance" when it comes to dealing with foreign policy issues.

There are different types of hierarchies. For example, Afghanistan is not a member of the G-8, but Obama certainly spends more time on it than, say, Canada. However, China is also not a member of the G8. So, your economic hierarchy is screwy from the get-go.

It's useful, then, to think in themes instead of hierarchies. For example:

* Iran is a player in larger Arab-Israeli relations.
* But Iran is not Arab, it's Persian, and therefore has historically been aligned against Arab countries.
* Iran makes its money selling oil to China.
* China would very much like it if the Americans stopped fucking with the Iranians.
* Russia is an Iranian neighbor, but has plenty of oil. Russia would like it if the Americans kept fucking with the Iranians, because it raises oil prices globally and keeps Iran from going nuclear.
* But Russia is allied with Arabs against Israel, because fuck American.

Out of this, America would like it if Iran didn't have a bomb and sold oil to China cheaply because China makes stuff Americans buy. Arabs and Russians also don't want Iran to have a bomb because fuck Iran.

But America has to play this smart because everyone has to win for anyone to win. The theme here is "smooth sailing is a victory all in itself."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:11 PM on March 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

The chance that Israel would attack Iranian nuclear sites seems to be the most urgent foreign policy issue right now because of the unpredictable and potentially severe consequences it would trigger.

In the medium term, I think the US wants to manage its withdrawal from Afghanistan in a way that leaves behind some level of stability.

In the longer term, adapting to the rise of China--finding a way to counterbalance its power without antagonizing it--looks like a major strategic goal.

Also high in priority, because people are dying on every day, is the situation in Syria, perhaps with the US making decisions on whether to help rebels behind the scenes, as well as coordinating with other countries to try to exert pressure on the regime.
posted by Paquda at 1:18 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

deanc: So what do you think are the more complicated and immediate issues currently?

So I should think about this in terms of themes ie economic, military, international peace, national interests etc, and also in terms of time? Wouldn't that eventually arrive to the same conclusion that everything is interrelated and overlapping, and that there isn't really any priority?
posted by espada0 at 1:56 PM on March 6, 2012

Pakistan, I feel, is the most vexing problem. No peace in Afghanistan is possible without, at minimum, Pakistan's tacit approval. Yet Pakistan is not entirely capable of directing it's own course of action due to popular sentiment and the largely ungoverned areas in much of the country.

This means the administration feels it cannot stay out of Pakistan's internal affairs; but those actions, such as drone attacks, further alienate Pakistanis. Of course, those who make the decisions in Pakistan are not necessarily of one mind about what course of action to take and have their own internal struggles. On top of all of this, there are nuclear weapons and a chronically unpopular state.

As high or nearly as high on the list as got to be the Eurozone crisis. It's intractable, due to the union's structure, and the systemic problems involved. But while it will take a long time to actually fix, it may have severe economic and political consequences in the short time. A collapse over there will probably tigger another recession in the United States; very possibly costing Obama the election. He obviously wants to avoid a recession for its own sake, but the short timeframe makes such a threat directly relevant to his political future, and means the administration is thinking about it a lot.

Iran is likely the other top tier problem. An Israeli attack would complicate many agendas at once. Oil prices would skyrocket, probably triggering a recession (again, possibly handing the White House to the GOP). Counterattacks by Iran and its proxies would force Obama's hand, bringing America another war it doesn't particularly want. (And one the administration certainly doesn't want before November.)

Even a limited war with Iran would probably take even marginally acceptable conclusions in Afghanistan off the table, could plunge Iraq into civil war and would weaken America's hand vis-a-vis China and Russia. Russia, at least, is slowly coming around to the need to get tough with Iran, but they will reverse course if Israel starts the war. Such a war may alienate the anti-theocratic elements in Iran, or turn the Iranian middle class against them, as now protesting the Supreme Leader would be seen as being a fifth column for the Americans.

Making this so difficult is a classic security dilemma. What Iran most wants is immunity from Western/US intervention, what the West most want is is stop the Iranians from getting the bomb. Iran thinks nuclear weapons is the way to get that immunity from attack. But working towards such a weapon makes the US more likely to think a quicker attack is the only way to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The only way out of this prisoner's dilemma is for some degree of trust, and neither side trusts the other.

There are of course other huge issues; the relationship with Russi and China being the most obvious. But those three really hit on the things the administration is most concerned about now: the war with al Qaeda, the economy, and reelection.
posted by spaltavian at 6:54 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Obama has to think about things through the lense of the election but not stray too far from his values so that he maintains his political coalition. This leads to a focus on few items in the short term, while continuing to look for opportunities to advance his long term goals. Each of these short term priorities would fit into a larger strategic theme Thus his short term focus is on:
1. The Iranian nuclear talks. He wants to avoid a weapons test between now and the election, as well as strike by Israel. He wants diplomacy to be seen as working. He would also like the oil market to recognize the reduced risk of an attack and see the price of oil go down. Thematically this connects to the goal of ensuring a stable supply of crude oil world markets.
2. The Eurozone crisis. Obama needs to ensure that the Greek crisis does not cause europe to turn into Lehman brothers. The long term goal is protecting the US economy and keeping Europe stable.
3. Syria -- this is front page news, but of limited strategic importance. Obama's challenge is to figure out how to reconcile our values of protecting civilians and human rights with the fact hat our strategic interests are limited and the Syrian opposition is a mess. Our goal here is to keep Syria from turning into Afghanistan or Somalia.

Everything else is pretty much a side show. North Korea has nikes and is talking not shooting at the moment, China's economy is slowing, Russia is still Russia, the BRICS are emerging, Afghanistan is winding down and Pakistan is screwed up. There is little we can do on these things so we are going to just have them in triage mode and wait for something big to change.

Climate, interntional banking regulations and nuclear disarmament would all be things that Obama would love to see some progress on, but it isn't a high priority thing.
posted by humanfont at 7:10 PM on March 6, 2012


Largest foreign policy facing the globe actually, because there is an outside chance that Israel striking Iran pre-emptively could, given the right circumstances, lead to World War III. (Chinese and Russians get pissed off, Iran retaliates by sinking a US ship seeing as how they view any Israeli action as a US one given the money-trail, angry Pakistani fundamentalists topple that country and gain the keys to live nuclear missiles, etc.).

Thing is, Netanyahu wants to embarrass Obama before the November election. Hitting Iran might lead to millions of people dying but hey, what's really important is that a Republican gets elected in November because they're more compliant to the whims of the Israeli hard-right, i.e., their current leadership.
posted by bardic at 2:16 AM on March 7, 2012

bardic: I'm not too sure how Iran would rationally think it would be a good idea to sink a US ship, maybe an Israeli army base, but attacking the US so overtly would just sort of...make them laugh?

humanfont: Is it just Syria domestically (Assad and shelling of Homs), or the fact that Syria as one of the more unstable, volatile offshoots of the Arab Spring, which arguably is an entirely different dimension altogether?

What about energy resources, the Arctic especially since its practically a new frontier in terms of energy acquisition and also a disputed territory on many levels, does the fight for scarce energy resources - which allows the US to do pretty much everything - not matter as much when compared to wars and the world economy?

In this sense then, the "importance" and "urgency" of foreign policy problems is dictated by short term national interests and public opinion (formed by whatever is plastered on the frontpages of the newspapers)?
posted by espada0 at 8:03 AM on March 7, 2012

I'm not too sure how Iran would rationally think it would be a good idea to sink a US ship

Consider that Iran lacks a truly strong central leadership -- you have a supreme leader, a president, a parliament, and an "Assembly of Experts" that selects the supreme leader. Throw in a military with multiple layers of general staff. This is a recipe for one arm of leadership to provoke something that might depose another arm and promote their own interests.

(e.g. Person A is in a coalition with General X, and tells General X to sink a ship in the hopes that the Americans kill Person B, which allows Person A to take control of the country and make General X his second-in-command.)

It really is 11-dimensional chess. ;-)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:12 AM on March 7, 2012

Syria is on the list for many reasons. The POTUS must consider US domestic political concerns, America's professed values communicated to our allies wrt human rights and our vital national interets in the region wrt regional stability from Beruit to Baghdad. Syria is in real danger of falling apart and spawning a regional shitstorm. Imagine Lebnon, Syria and Iraq collapsing into a massive multi-ethnic conflict. The Saudis and Iranians having a big proxy war that keeps the conflict burning for decades.

The arctic is an ongoing challenge, but there is no urgency here. Drilling and major development in the arctic ocean is still a decade off, plans are being drawn up and people are trying to figure out what can be done up there.. The discussions will go on for a long time. The strategic considerations are fairly obvious and so there won't be a lot of direct involvement by Obama unless the Russians do something more than plant flags.
posted by humanfont at 7:59 PM on March 7, 2012

Regarding the Eurozone, exactly how is that a foreign policy problem? I understand that foreign policy is not constrained to military/strategic issues, but it seems like a major reason that Obama is fixed on the Eurozone is simply because it coincides with the 2012 presidential elections.
posted by espada0 at 6:16 AM on March 13, 2012

A Eurozone collapse would be catastrophic for the global economy on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis.
posted by humanfont at 9:12 AM on March 13, 2012

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