Navigating tall challenges in foreign policy

As if he didn’t already have a full plate and more to contend with from obstructionist congressional Republicans about his domestic agenda, President Obama finds himself, early in this second term, with tall challenges on the national security/foreign policy front that threaten to make the rest of his tenure an obstacle course not for the faint of heart. The thorny issues just keep piling up. Recent brouhahas like the chill in the US-Russia relationship and Edward Snowden’s role in this or rumblings at home over people’s right to privacy being compromised by post-9/11 realities add to longer-standing perplexities like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. And what seemed like pretty smooth sailing in the first term, even policy moves that looked to be undeniable pluses, now come in for second guessing.

The positive vibe radiating from Obama’s vow to pursue and eliminate bin Laden and other key al Qaida figures, to terminate a heavy-duty presence in Iraq and wind down the commitment in Afghanistan served him well at a time he most needed to demonstrate the muscular resolve those issues demanded. Some indeed thought he tended to over-compensate on the macho thing. But a not easily ignored deficit side to these as well as other policy directions has manifested itself, making for a more cloudy outlook.

Although Iraq was an undertaking Obama, like millions of others, saw as a war the U.S. should never have initiated, how the American invasion and occupation has left Iraq gets laid at the feet of not the trigger-happy crew who orchestrated the colossal mess, but the guy overseeing the pullout. At this point there appears to be little doubt that Iraq will remain in chaos for a long time to come.”Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” might well be the caption for Obama’s decision to make a clean break from the hell-hole created when some folks in Washington took a Saddam fixation to unseemly extremes. In Afghanistan, where Obama was supportive of the U.S. invasion, the country is proving to be just as ungovernable under an American-designed road map as with any of the previous foreign powers who’ve tried and failed to bring stability to that place. One hardly expects that things in Afghanistan will be in measurably better shape by the 2014 exit date the president has set.

On the unarguably prudent objective of taking out known terrorist operatives, this too hasn’t been without pushback. Drone attacks, the method of choice for hitting known players in the terror business, have come under much criticism for alleged collateral damage and unintended killings they’ve caused. Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have become frayed, and drone attacks are supposedly a major sticking point. Pakistani resentment must be growing over Big Brother perhaps exacting too heavy a price for the substantial aid annually sent Pakistan’s way. Surprisingly perhaps, there have been some homeland voices as well making negative noises about the need for the drone program to be revisited.

But whatever homegrown opposition the use of drones has generated, it of course pales by comparison with the ruckus over domestic surveillance that’s in vogue now. The leaking of classified material by former National Security Agency contractor Snowden has turned the spotlight big time on the need, as the president said last Friday, “to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms.” Obama reassured the public again that the national security establishment’s access capability for all phone calls made doesn’t mean the government is spying on average Joes. He announced some tinkering with the process, all supposedly in the interest of giving the program greater transparency. But not up for debate was that the president remained fully committed to the government’s access to phone records as a necessary tool in the ongoing struggle to keep the country safe. Hardly a surprise, the policy doesn’t pass muster unanimously across the American landscape.

Obama’s response in trying to give some reassurance to Americans fearful of maybe having reached the “nothing is sacred” point, presents one heck of a contrast to what one would pretty much expect the response to be, in similar circumstances from the Bush-Cheney tandem, for instance. “The hell with transparency” would be the overriding imperative there for sure.

The spat with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over the grant of temporary sanctuary to Snowden may not exactly be a tempest in a teapot, but it’s not the opening salvo in a new Cold War either. Russia’s potential brokering capability with the likes of Iran and Syria simply means the Obama administration has to find a way to re-set the table in wake of this Snowden imbroglio, so that some semblance of normalcy in the U.S. engagement of Russia could resume. Failure to make this happen would be another hiccup the president doesn’t need.

It has been Obama’s lot to see some key U.S. allies flame out, most spectacular probably being the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Who knew that this man, reputedly close second-in-command and successor to Sadat, was such a terrible dude, as Egypt’s masses claimed? Whatever, a critical go-to guy for America in the Middle East fell and Egypt has since been a powder keg.

The president must navigate his way through all these national, tribal or other agendas, or the intransigence that’s a given with conflicting vested interests. And suddenly, handling first-term foreign policy looks like a cakewalk.

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