Mr Obama’s policies have become more hawkish as his first term progressed even as his predecessor’s wars have been either completed or set to terminate in the next few years.
Campaign promises aside, Mr Obama quickly discovered the constraints of office did not allot unlimited power or unlimited choice as he may have dreamed. Mr Obama’s first term was of course characterised and constrained by the scourge of international terrorism and President George W. Bush’s reactions to that threat built up over his eight years in power.
Moving into his second term, Mr Obama might be able to stretch his legs politically. Many of those in his first administration were remnants of Mr Bush’s final term. The ability to replace them with people more closely aligned with Mr Obama’s policies and ideology has now arrived.
United States presidents have very little unilateral power domestically. Their constitution specifically made it impossible for one person to attain too much strength at home. The American president has always been given far more control over United States foreign policy.
However, no matter how much control they may think they have, there is always the potential for the unexpected event, especially in foreign policy.
It is a pretty safe wager to expect a surprising move somewhere in the world during an election cycle. Four years is a long time, and the world is a complex and constantly evolving organism.
Former President George W. Bush was getting ready to court the Pacific nations in much the same way as recently proposed by the Obama administration when the September 11 attacks happened. Mr Bush’s entire presidential term was shaped irretrievably by the attack that completely blindsided him and his administration.
Somewhat equally, Mr Obama did not see the so-called Arab Spring coming and has had to deal with a spiraling security situation throughout the Arab and North African world in his first term.
The on-going civil unrest in Syria and Libya were not in his expected timeline at all and by some accounts almost lost him the recent election because of the way he has been seen to deal with the problems.
As President Obama steps away from the exhausting campaign trail for the last time, there are a number of issues refusing to fade now confronting his second and final term.
First, American relations with China in particular and the Pacific nations in general are tenuous at best.
While a shooting war with China is unlikely in the next four years, Washington will be spending more time in the Pacific, giving greater potential for conflict. As seen recently around a few scattered islands in the South China Sea, a small skirmish has the potential to escalate quickly.
Both Washington and Beijing, the two largest players in the Pacific, benefit from an amiable relationship. But if history is any guide, the drive to control geography for one’s own needs puts even friendly countries at odds. As the two largest military forces on the planet mingle closer, the need for cool heads is vital.
Second, wisdom and rationality are needed in equal measure regarding Iran.
U.S. forces have slowly built up a substantial military presence in the Persian Gulf, largely unnoticed by media. Economic sanctions are causing the Iranian Rial to collapse. While international rhetoric is appearing more militaristic as weeks pass.
Tehran has made it clear it will not cancel its nuclear ambitions, no matter how the pressure is increased. Yet Iran will probably not cross Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Red Line” and enrich their nuclear fuel to weapons grade. Nor will Tehran actually become nuclear armed; they are too rational for that.
Instead, Tehran will adopt a North Korean model of nuclear threats and remain eternally in the “nuclear capable” realm.
Iran would draw a quick American attack if a nuclear device was tested, and a fight is not in Iran’s interest. Israel is too weak to unilaterally strike Iranian nuclear plants so will continue to play the part of ‘bad cop’ to America’s ‘good cop’. The more likely path is a negotiated settlement in which America and Iran agree on personal spheres of influence.
In much the same way as former U.S. President Ronald Reagan broached a detente with a 1980s Maoist China; current President Obama will probably negotiate with Tehran while trying not to appear too impotent. A difficult task, and likely a defining one for his administration.
Third, just next door in the Arab world, governments continue to totter and violence threatens to spill from Syria into Lebanon even as it rips Syria apart.
A no-fly-zone covering Syria similar to that imposed over Libya in 2011 is still not a desired strategic option for the United States. Neither is supporting a direct NATO intervention or supplying the necessary thousands of troops to impose regime change on Damascus.
The Obama administration has not intervened in Syria overtly, relying instead on covert intelligence officers and Special Operations forces to both arm and train the Syrian rebels. The American status quo of a hands-off approach to the Arab Spring will likely remain the defining policy for the region.
Fourth, President Obama’s intervention in Libya precipitated a spill-over of violence into Northern Mali. The war in Libya spread Libyan heavy weaponry throughout the region and directly led to an insurgency in Mali.
As it stands, the situation in North Africa is grim. A group proclaiming ties to the al Qaeda franchise took advantage of the chaos in both Mali and Libya and established a firm presence.
The Obama administration has already broadened Special Operations forces and unmanned drone presence on the continent in response to a recent deadly attack on a United States embassy in Libya perpetrated by the al Qaeda militants.
Fifth, on top of these concerns rests the developing trend of a slowly downsizing, less interventionist American foreign policy. America has fought four wars since 1990 and the burden is becoming too great.
As exemplified in the Syrian decision not to intervene directly, the United States is now returning to a policy of balancing regional powers instead of trying to control them directly. The consequence of shaking things up between countries has proven disastrous and extremely costly.
President Obama’s final term will not be a simple one. As the world gets more intertwined economically it will be the heartless face of geography and the people that inhabit its most volatile spaces that pull the strings of Mr Obama’s policies.