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Where Obama’s foreign policy goes from here

REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Obama’s address almost certainly will focus on domestic issues, even if many of his initiatives are likely to be DOA in Congress.

Interesting timing. President Obama will give the State of the Union address Tuesday night – two years to the day from Inauguration Day 2017, when his successor will take the oath and step into the Oval Office. 

Obama’s address almost certainly will focus on domestic issues, even if many of his initiatives, including proposals on taxes and education that have already leaked, are likely to be DOA in Congress.

But unencumbered by the need to face voters again, this also is a time when a president can focus on foreign policy, an area where the executive traditionally has had more flexibility, and where it may be easier for him to build a legacy. 

One part of that legacy already is clear. Despite initially increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, leading the military intervention in Libya and recommitting U.S. forces to Iraq this year, Obama has proven more reluctant to use American military might. Part of that is temperament. Part is a response to the cost in blood and treasure of another legacy – that of George W. Bush. 

The president has faced very tough choices in places like Syria. But his caution creates its own logic, one that may encourage potential adversaries to take chances even while limiting U.S. options to respond.

It’s also true that some things are largely outside any president’s control. Think oil prices, and the U.S. and global economies. Obama’s standing seems likely to benefit from those. Other issues have such a large domestic component — think immigration and climate change — that they are essentially national issues.

Still, it’s worth reviewing some major foreign policy issues with an eye toward how Obama is likely to manage them.

Islamic extremism: The Boston Marathon bombing aside, the U.S. has avoided another major terror attack on its soil. There is almost nothing in the next two years that could damage Obama’s legacy more. Last summer, with the sudden emergence of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, this appeared to become a territorial issue. The conflict appears to be largely a stalemate now, and the Paris attack this month reinforces the idea that home front is paramount. The main focus here will be on intelligence and police work to keep track of an increasing number of potential attackers operating outside of tightly organized Sept. 11-type terror cells.

Iran’s nuclear program: Circumstances have given Obama an opportunity to attempt a fresh start with several longstanding U.S. adversaries. One is Iran. Despite the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, the U.S. and five other world powers were unable to close a deal in November with Iran over its nuclear program. They continue to negotiate. But with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remaining uncommitted in public and many in Congress demanding even tougher sanctions, the only way this works is if diplomats complete the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, coming up with a deal so good that hardliners on both sides can swallow it. Obama will keep trying as long as he can. Sometimes just agreeing to continue talking is a victory.

Cuba and Latin America: The dramatic announcement in December that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations answers a pent-up demand for change that is likely to gain momentum. It won’t be smooth, but some things already are moving.  As promised, Cuba has released 53 political prisoners, new travel and trade rules are in effect, and a Congressional delegation is in Havana. Meantime, Venezuela is replacing Cuba as Washington’s ‘bad boy’ in Latin America. Obama signed legislation last month allowing the U.S. to impose sanctions against Venezuelan officials. Venezuela is awash in oil, but store shelves are empty and the country is heading for triple-digit inflation. It’s not clear how Roberto Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chavez, can keep things together.

Russia: Don’t expect Vladimir Putin to suddenly stop meddling in eastern Ukraine. Obama’s focus will be to keep up the pressure, trying to make sure sanctions hurt those close to the Russian president. That, together with a prolonged slump in oil prices is likely to damage Russia more than any other policy Obama could devise. The U.S. and its allies will also try to prop up Ukraine without getting too deeply involved, and hope that Ukraine’s military can turn back Russian-backed separatists. 

China: As he was reducing U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, Obama announced a “pivot toward Asia” aimed at reinforcing America’s position as a Pacific power and reassuring U.S. allies worried about growing Chinese assertiveness. Little has changed since, except that China appears to be acting even more confidently. Claims to sections of the East and South China seas, their energy resources and trade routes, put countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines at odds with China. The U.S. needs China’s cooperation on a range of issues —North Korea, the global economy and climate change, to name a few. The U.S. will be looking to thread a needle here — reassuring allies of U.S. resolve while defining limits for China that don’t preclude broader cooperation.

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