When President Obama gets back to the Oval Office, the challenges of foreign affairs will look pretty much the same as they did before the election. And while all presidents would like to shelve foreign policy to focus on “a little nation building right here home,” Mr. Obama well knows that the world can’t be put on hold. As long as the United States remains a leading economy with complex military, financial and geopolitical interests around the world, Washington cannot ignore the globe.
No doubt the White House will want to jump right in on taxes, deficits, jobs and economic growth—after all, that’s what the people reelected him to deal with. But foreign policy usually refuses to take a back seat. And there’s a lot going on overseas that will demand more than a little attention.
Middle East Muddle
There is no single Middle East problem. There is a plethora of problems that run from Iran through the deserts to Egypt and into North Africa. All signs indicate this part of the globe will host the world’s hottest hot spots in the months ahead.
Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, protests in the Gulf States, an increasingly unsteady Egypt, terrorists in the Sahel—these are all distinct problems, yet each has the potential to cascade throughout the region and beyond. The effects of a widening war in Syria, for example, could ripple as far South as Mali. If the administration tries to treat each of these without an eye on the other, running back and forth like a fireman—or, worse, a gawking bystander—it will be unable to stay ahead of the tsunami of change (or war) that is coming. The White House is going to have to come with a coordinated, integrated regional approach.
Asian High Anxiety
Since the president promised to pivot to Asia, the only change in the region has been a downturn in U.S. influence and prestige. The distractions in the Middle East have made a mockery of the notion that the United States ever truly could focus on one part of the world and put other areas of vital interest on the backburner.
Ever since the administration announced its pivot, China has done nothing but challenge it, flexing its military muscle and broadening its claims of sovereignty at sea. Looking at the administration’s plans to downsize the military, the Chinese have concluded that the Pentagon won’t have much left to pivot with—and if a crisis arises elsewhere, the United States will have to pull forces from the Pacific to respond. So far the pivot has all the credibility of a pirouette. The president will have to fix that.
There is more than enough evidence that the president’s counterterrorism strategy, though less than two years old, has come to the end of its life. That strategy focused on “decapitating” al Qaeda. It didn’t work because al Qaeda is really just a piece of a global Islamist insurgency. Unlike a drug cartel, it can’t be taken down by just taking out the leadership.
Unless the president changes course soon, terrorists will have more sanctuaries by 2016 than they had in 2010.
What happened at the U.S. consulate was a terrible, and perhaps unforgivable, tragedy. It was not, however, a foreign policy disaster.
But Benghazi could become one yet if the president doesn’t stop now and just come clean with the American people. Better to just come out with all the facts, take your licks, and move on than to let the issue dog and distract the White House for months to come.
Don’t forget that once al Qaeda tries a tactic, it always comes back to it again. There will be another embassy attack in America’s future. Let’s find and fix the gaps before the next one.
James Jay Carafano is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The National Interest.