10 foreign policy priorities for Obama
November 8th, 2012
02:35 PM ET

10 foreign policy priorities for Obama

Barack Obama has won reelection as America’s president. But while the economy – and avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff – will inevitably take up much of his time, there are numerous foreign policy challenges facing the next administration. GPS asked 10 leading foreign policy analysts to name 10 things that Obama should focus on next. The views expressed are, of course, the authors' own.

Keep Arab Spring on track

By Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

The biggest human rights challenge facing President Obama in his second term is finding ways to help keep on track the reform agenda that launched the Arab Spring. Most important is ending the horrible slaughter of civilians in Syria. Obama should stop pretending that Russia’s and China’s obstructionism absolves the U.S. of responsibility to continue ratcheting up pressure to stop the atrocities.

In Egypt, the regional trendsetter, Obama has properly said he respects the election that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, but now he should press the government, like all others, to respect basic rights, including of women and minorities. In Libya, Obama should stop treating the country as a “mission accomplished” and actively help elected authorities build the rule of law. And Obama should keep his promise to “promote reform across the region” and stop the discrediting double standard of making exceptions for U.S. allies, whether friendly monarchs or Israel.

Avert an al Qaeda crisis

By Danielle Pletka

Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, DC.

There are two top priorities in national security for Barack Obama as he enters his second term.  The first is Iran, the second the return of al Qaeda.  Of course, there are pressing challenges everywhere; the Middle East is in the process of a generational transformation that will in the short term look much worse for America’s interests, allies and values.  China’s strategic ambitions are increasingly and obvious anathema to our and our allies’ interests in the Pacific.  A rapid exit will be failure in Afghanistan.

But these are slow motion train wrecks.  The two oncoming locomotives are a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it in the hands of one of the rashest and most dangerous regimes in the world; and the metastases of al Qaeda and its cohort from South Asia to the broader Middle East to the horn of Africa and beyond. Iran now has enough nuclear material, enrichable in short order from 20 percent, to fuel several nuclear weapons.  Regime leaders have expressed the intention of dominating their region and destroying Israel.  We ignore those threats at our peril.  Al Qaeda now controls substantial and growing territory around the world, and will make impressive gains in Iraq, Syria and Egypt (Sinai) before long.  For the last four years, Barack Obama has allowed these problems to grow.  There is a crisis around the corner, and much must be done to avert it.

Get the fiscal house in order

By James Lindsay

James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. The views expressed are his own.. 

Iran. Afghanistan. China. Syria. Al Qaeda. These are just some of the foreign policy challenges awaiting President Obama in his second term. But his top foreign policy priority won’t be overseas; it will instead be here at home – putting the U.S. government on a sound fiscal footing. Trillion dollar deficits simply aren’t sustainable. The flow of red ink need not be stanched overnight; indeed, doing so would derail an already anemic economy.

But tough decisions on aligning spending with revenues are essential. The trick is do so while continuing to make the critical investments in education, infrastructure, and innovation that help nourish the wellsprings of America’s global power. That is a tall order given the nation’s current partisan divisions. But if Washington fails to act, or if it rashly slashes investments in the future, the result will be a weakened country less able to influence events overseas to its liking.

Regime change in Iran

By Michael Rubin

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

A perfect storm is approaching the Middle East – and Iran is its eye. Debate about whether Iranian nuclear weapons capability or their acquisition should be the American red line misses the point: The difference between the two could be a week. Enriched uranium stockpiling suggests the international policy of procrastination will end. A military strike will unleash a cascade of instability, but so too would nuclear breakout. Secure behind its own deterrent, a nuclear Iran might act upon its ideological prerogative to export revolution.

Sequestration will tie America’s hands. The headlines today report violence in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Gaza, but tomorrow they could just as easily include Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait. Containment is no solution. After decades of promising no tolerance of a nuclear Iran, no Arab ally will trust a U.S. nuclear umbrella; instead, they will make accommodation with resurgent Iran. The only solution is to hasten regime collapse. Unless that occurs, get ready for renewed terrorism, nuclear brinkmanship, and $200 oil.

5. Banish Europe’s ghost

By Madhav Nalapat

Madhav Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University in India.

The United States will not be able to maintain its primacy in the 21st century by clinging to assumptions valid only in the 20th. Thus far, the U.S. and the European Union have frequently, in the form of NATO and otherwise, formed a package while dealing with the rest of the world. It was such an identity that caused the tragedy in Vietnam, where Washington sought to follow in the footsteps of Paris. And since 2001, the United States has persisted in dragging bits of Europe along with it in its foreign operations, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere. In Libya, meanwhile, Washington followed Paris and London into an endeavor that has left the country ungovernable.

More from CNN: Obama faces world of challenges

With its colonial baggage and continuing condescending attitude, the major European powers are strategic deadweight for the United States, slowing down and diffusing its resonance and thrust in Asia, Africa and South America. It was hoped that President Obama would free his country from this yoke, but this has not happened. In fact, the deathly influence of Europe has arguably increased. 21st century. The U.S. needs to see Asia and Europe as separate but equal entities, without seeking to insert one into the other. The U.S. needs to rediscover its strengths rather than persist in acting as though it Europe is part of its eastern most shore.

Find an effective Clinton-Campbell replacement

By Brad Glosserman

Brad Glosserman is the executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS.

While Barack Obama’s reelection means that there will be continuity in foreign policy toward Asia (although there would have been in the event of a Romney win, given decades of broad bipartisan support for Asia policy, rhetoric toward China notwithstanding) personnel changes are likely to have an impact. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that she will step down after the first term, and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, is likely to go with her.

These two have done truly outstanding jobs, and while no one is irreplaceable, they will be sorely missed. The next secretary will follow the president’s lead, so Asia will remain a priority; the assistant secretary’s focus by definition is Asia, so attention won’t flag there either. And there are plenty of smart, hardworking and talented folks on the Democratic bench capable of picking up the portfolios.

No, the changes will reflect the fact that Clinton and Campbell have a special relationship. They are extremely close, and Campbell has had outsized influence precisely because of that connection. I have heard numerous tales of how Campbell got the secretary’s attention and time precisely because of their close personal ties. That dynamic will be hard to replicate and is likely to have a profound if indefinable impact on U.S. foreign policy.

Develop Latin American ties

By Christopher Sabatini

Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly. The views expressed are his own.

Despite its importance for U.S. exports and the counter-narcotics, Latin America will not be a high priority for the new administration – perhaps understandable given the other demands and crises across the globe. That said, there are a number of countries and issues that certainly deserve high level attention.

First among them is Brazil. The world’s sixth-largest economy, Brazil aims to be a regional and global power, an ambition that has made for a prickly partnership with the U.S., including over the humanitarian intervention in Libya and its goal to gain a permanent seat on an expanded U.N. Security Council. The administration should try to foster Brazil’s promotion into multilateral forums and agreements to leverage a closer working relationship.

Second, the drug trade and the violence and corruption that have come with it are threatening state collapse in Central America and have cost over 50,000 lives in Mexico. The U.S. needs to dramatically expand its assistance and cooperation with countries in the region while also attacking drug consumption and arms sales within its own borders.

Last, for domestic political reasons, Cuba has always – unfortunately – always commanded outsize attention in U.S. domestic politics and policy toward the region, with support for the U.S. embargo often serving as a litmus test for presidential appointees before congress. The next four years, it will deserve the attention – but of a different sort. With Fidel Castro 86 years-old and his successor brother Raul 83, there will almost certainly be a leadership transition in Cuba’s 60-year-old revolution. The embargo law currently ties the ability of the U.S. government in its relations with Cuba and the Cuban people until a democratic transition is nearly completed, and has isolated U.S.-Cuba policy from the rest of the world.  The U.S. will need to refine its policy to play a constructive, multilateral role if it wants to shape the process – which, being just 90 miles from Florida, it must.

Negotiate the Japan-China high wire

By Guy de Jonquières

Iran would be the top priority, but a close second is the bitter Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute between China and Japan, which has poisoned their bilateral relations and is causing real economic damage. Mutual mistrust and strong pressures from nationalist groups on both governments to act tough mean that the risks of escalation, and of tactical miscalculations leading to military conflict, are high.

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The dispute not only jeopardizes security and stability in East Asia; it poses a serious dilemma for Washington and the first test of its Asian “pivot” policy. The U.S is committed by treaty to defend Japan. But it may be hard to demonstrate effective support for Tokyo without itself being sucked into the dispute, putting it on a collision course with Beijing. Cool nerves, fine judgment and delicate diplomacy will be needed.

Find a feasible plan for an Iran strike

By Jonathan Schanzer

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former terror finance analyst at the U.S. Department of Treasury. He tweets at @JSchanzer. The views expressed are his own.

President Obamamust home in on the foreign policy challenge that poses the most imminent threat to world security: Iran. The theocratic regime in Tehran is undeniably closer to obtaining a nuclear bomb. With that weapon in hand, the regime will have the ability to deliver a devastating blow to the United States or any one of its allies. With a “nuclear umbrella,” Iran could also continue to terrorize the world with impunity, thanks to a state-run terror apparatus known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, and still others elsewhere. The president must push forward with punishing sanctions, and credibly threaten the use of force. Should Iran choose not to step back from the nuclear brink, the president may also need a feasible plan for military intervention. If Iran builds a nuclear weapon, it will almost certainly happen on his watch.

Drop China ambiguity

By Brian Klein

Brian P. Klein is a global strategist and former U.S. diplomat. He blogs at Klein’s Commentary.

China’s economic rise and increasing military assertiveness have pushed U.S. strategic ambiguity to its limits. If a decisive position isn’t taken soon, allies and friendly countries will question whether the U.S. can back up its Asia pivot talk with action. Focusing on realistic trade liberalization, increased military contacts with China and firm engagement rather than the blame and shame tactics of the past must become a priority.

Meanwhile, the once vaunted Arab Spring, so full of promise and democratic zeal, shows signs of entering a long dark winter. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy whittles away at reforms in the marginally secular republic, while Syria’s civil war now threatens regional stability, with conflict overflowing into Turkey and Lebanon. Boots on the ground may not be an option, but a focused effort to influence, if not completely resolve these destabilizing trends will be essential to restoring peace.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Afghanistan • Africa • Arab Spring • Asia • Barack Obama • China • Conflict • Cuba • East Asia • Economy • Iran • United States

soundoff (123 Responses)
  1. American

    1. Amnesty for Mexicans
    2. Amnetsy for Guatamalans
    3. Amnesty for Hondurans
    4. Amnesty for Nicaraguans
    5. Amnesty for Costa Ricans
    6. Amnesty for Panamanians
    7. Amnesty Colombians
    8. Amnesty for Ecuadorians
    9. Amnesty for Haitians
    10. Amnesty for anyone who will vote Democrat

    November 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  2. rad666

    How about not sending checks for foreign aid for 4 years and rebuild America?

    November 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
  3. jamesdickason

    How about concentrating on Lowering Taxes, Lowering Gasoline Prices, Lowering Food Prices and going back to Chicago–

    November 13, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  4. patrick st louis

    Nuke em!!!!! Yehah!!

    November 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  5. johnny

    It will be a major flaw for President Obama to spend any more money or attention in the forever-in-crisis Middle East.

    America will soon be capable of being self sufficient in oil. The threat of oil supply cut by the Middle East oil producers will no longer be a future issue. I expect America will import less than 10% of its oil needs by 2015.

    US just need to tighten its internal security system , like having a country wide aerial survelliance system 24/7 by a ntwork of Unmanned surveillance aircrafts. Such a system would be capable of looking closeup even on the faces of people in the streets of America. This may be a big ticket item but its long term investment and is much better than stationing troops overseas and wasting money protecting countries that are not really friends of America. .

    November 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  6. johnny

    One of the ways forward for any US President is to abandon this traditional regard of China as a potential threat – in everything.

    Americans mostly dont not know the true psyche of China. War is never never the preoccuption of Chinese mentality. War is waste of money and interrupts Chinese trade and business everywhere, and so is not desirable. For the Chinese it 's all about business and trade. Call it a genetic makeup if you like, that is uniquely Chinese. Chinese people run countries they setup in, even when they were a minority race in that country. You never hear of Chinese wealthy people getting involved in starting wars overseas, unlike busybody and wealth squandering America.

    An American and Chinese co-operation is preferred to holding this false presumption of aggression by either country against each other.

    November 13, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Reply
    • mike from ct

      If war is not part of the Chinese government's mentality, then why are they building ballistic missiles that are designed to track and hit moving aircraft carriers? Funny it was the Taiwan Straight Crisis that helped accelerate the development of these missiles. That was when the United States sided with a people who are respected by their government against an authoritarian regime that was menacing them with missile tests.
      As far as starting wars in other countries, I think your average Tibetan would disagree with your assessment after being invaded and occupied, seeing their culture threatened by a flood of immigration to their land, and the building of a railroad by the Chinese government to their country. Native Americans can also relate to this.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:22 am | Reply
  7. stained 101

    foreign priority #1 \nlm Israel

    November 13, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
  8. Petey

    "keep arab spring on track"

    I see they did not mention that war in Syria has killed like 40,000 people in the last year.

    Personally I believe armageddon is going to happen in 36 days. Just look at what is happening in Syria. Seems like the Syria attacking Israel in Meghiddo prophecy is very plausible.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:17 am | Reply
    • noname

      how'd that work out.... Armageddon lol

      June 7, 2014 at 9:36 pm | Reply
  9. mike from ct

    No one has mentioned Mali. Granted, its not the most pressing foreign policy concern, but it should be brought up.

    November 14, 2012 at 1:59 am | Reply
  10. lovUSA

    "QUOTED" We now need to focus on Pakistan. The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront of the irrelevance of Pakistan as a nation.
    Their soldiers continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans from within the country occupied entire SWAT and areas near Islamabad for months on end showing how useless Pakistan is and how coward its army and its peoples are. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as sewer of Asia.
    I continue to read with interest the thesis presented on CNN that "less is more" in a political context as applied to Pakistan.
    Empowering subjugated minorities in Pakistan by splitting it into smaller states would trigger uber economic demand for western nations who have given so much financial andtechnology aid to Pakistan with no return to show for the investment and only backstabbing and covert terrorist operations by Pakistan against them. Balochistan is an excellent idea to achieve this.
    I concur with this approach and with an economic background find the premise to be on solid footing. Central Asian States (CAS) are a case in point on this successful approach.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:44 am | Reply
  11. lovUSA

    "QUOTED" I am not one to mince words. The common denominator to all the bad things
    happening in the world is PAKISTAN ! Yes, folks...PAKISTAN ! Look at all the countries surrounding that are reeling in terror due to this country..... Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Myanmar. The mother of all trouble makers ... yes folks, hold on to your chairs !!! is PAKISTAN !!! IT IS NOT COINCIDENCE !! IT IS BY DESIGN !!!
    Pakistan cannot stop meddling in the affairs of these fledgling nations...financing terrorists...incitingcommunal violence, fanning religious intolerance.
    This must come to a stop immediately before this cancerous country bursts itself. Turning it intoan inferno that will be uncontrollable. The conditions are ripe for this to happen as Pakistan doesn't have any economy at all that is threatening not even south Asia but entire world !!!
    Time for US to immediately declare Pakistan as a terrorist nation.......................

    November 14, 2012 at 10:45 am | Reply
  12. lovUSA

    "QUOTED" Pakistan has become a cancer for this world. A source of financing and inspiration for all terrorists in the region the likes of which have attacked Malala. A place where these extremists seek refuge after attacking neighboring countries and NATO forces and American troops. Pakistan is a Smithsonian specimen. Like humpty dumpty even USA, NATO and the entire free world are having a tough time holding it together. Living in the shadows of India, defined by China, and punctuated by Terror Organizations such as Al Qaeda, Lashkar E Taibba, Jesh E Muhammad, Jamaad Ud Dawa
    find a meaning for its existence and a place in the new world order. How can it
    stand up? Certainly not on its feet .....perhaps on its knees to seek
    redemption for double crossing USA in Afghanistan and Iraq.For be fooling entire world in the name of war on terror and OBL, hiding it and making sure to loot billions from US taxpayers money.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:45 am | Reply
  13. lovUSA

    "QUOTED" The bottom line is that the only way to have peace in the region, eliminate terrorism and lessen regional tension is to declare Pakistan as a terrorist and hostile nation. It has become a gone case to govern or create any value for western countries or even for its own population. \
    We have invested a lot of resources in Pakistan since its creation given a lot of aid to prop it up. There has been no return on this investment. Instead Paksitan has squandered all theresources in building nuclear weapons and repainting cheap Chinese missiles with stars and moon while poverty and terrorism remains rampant in the country. We need to revisit our relationship with Pakistan . American taxpayers will not tolerate this anymore. We need to take care of our own populace going forward. We cannot be giving more financial aids to Pakistan and should not hear to its begging pleads !!
    The thesis is that smaller independent states out of it will generate tremendous economic demand for western nations, be democratically more efficient and easy to manage,

    November 14, 2012 at 10:50 am | Reply
    • Deepak

      Dont worry bro, the whole world knows that now, we are dealing step by step to dismantle them

      November 14, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
    • Deepak

      Dont worry bro, the whole world knows that now, we are dealing step by step to break them like we did in 71

      November 14, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  14. fuscator

    Tall to do list!
    Perhaps Americans should have voted a slate of magicians.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  15. london

    colonial baggage, latin american ties? sounds to me like forget the falklands right to self determination, get into to bed with argentina... sounds alot like forget principles think chinese. the first mark of a doomed peoples. don't be fooled to go that way.

    November 14, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  16. london

    in fact i have come to the conclusion that Madhav Nalapat is not very well learned. and the editors decision to put sabatini' part following, but next, on suggests the us should move towards a continent with 3.5tnapp gdp 64bnapp military expenditure from one with 20tnapp gdp 195bn me... i must ask my fellow english speakers would u rather go on with europe (britain and whoever can be convinced to face west than east) or with brazil and a mangle of tin-pot bashing republics.
    sorry i couldn't put more of an intelligent answer nut im either stupid or dont really have the time

    November 14, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  17. Jesse

    get rid of Holder, Napolitano, and Clinton YAY! 3 people who hurt their trigger pullers. Bush should have dumped Chertoff just to be fair.

    November 14, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  18. r.aly

    Why Israel is so worried about Iran's so called nuclear bomb while she has hundreds of these. Iran is an old civilization and in my view a much responsible country than Israel.

    November 14, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Reply
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    November 14, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  20. Yes1fan

    The article fails to mention the BEST foreign policy we can make a priority.
    That is "global energy independence", where EVERY country has as much energy as they need to thrive, and come close to a utopian situation.
    The ONLY feasible way to achieve that with a portable energy fuel source, and minimal disruption of existing systems, is by massively scaling up Pollution-negative Oil-from-Algae production.
    Making MORE pollution-free oil than the world needs, avoids MANY of the "problems with the world" caused by NOT doing so.

    November 15, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
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