Foreign Policy Choices Facing President Obama in His Second Term: An Italian Perspective


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Our dear friend Lucio Caracciolo, founder and editor of Limes (Latin for “border”), Italy’s leading journal of international and security affairs, has kindly sent us the following thoughts on the international challenges facing President Obama in his second term.  It is a very personal reflection, by someone known for speaking his mind directly and unambiguously.  (As the Italians would say, Lucio has “no hair on his tongue.”)  This is not an expression of the policies or guiding philosophy of the US-Italy Global Affairs Forum.  For one thing, we are devotedly nonpartisan, while Lucio expresses some very strong political opinions when discussing the United States. Still, it is important for those of us in the U.S. to see how authoritative commentators and analysts elsewhere view this country, its leadership, and its policies.  We offer the following text in that spirit, with heartfelt thanks to Lucio and his team at Limes for their help and support to the Forum.

Barack Obama was re-elected to save America from another recession, not to save the world.  And he knows it very well.  Three words are at the top of his agenda: jobs, jobs, and jobs.  But jobs and social well-being are not just a function of economic cycles and policies.  They depend ever more on America’s place in the world, on US political, commercial, and financial relations with the rest of the world, in particular with China, which no longer accepts the Washington Consensus and will not forget that the ongoing financial crisis originated on Wall Street.  But it also depends on the wars the US has to, or will have to, fight, even if it would prefer not to.  First of all, the war on terrorism, now in its eleventh year,and moving on to a possible preemptive attack on Iran, perhaps in collaboration with Israel, perhaps not.  Obama will do everything possible to avoid it, but a decision in Jerusalem or an Iranian refusal to negotiate seriously could bring on conflict.  The difference between domestic and foreign policy is that one can largely foresee the domestic agenda, while the world is too vast and inscrutable for anyone to develop a reliable model,  even for the president of the United States.  Especially a leader who is in his second term, elected in a country divided between a Right that misses the old solitary and solipsistic America – reactionary at home and bellicose abroad – and a Center-Left that would prefer to tend the shabby family garden and bring home as many soldiers as possible.  With public coffers half empty and a legislative branch divided between a House of Representatives controlled by often extremist Republicans and a Senate with a limited Democratic majority, Obama’s one, by no means negligible, advantage is that he cannot be re-elected, so he will act without worrying about costs to his electoral prospects.

At this point, the president’s global agenda includes three commandments.  First: decide what to do, or not to do, with China.  Second: decide whether to attack Iran, with or without Israel.  Third: adapt to the ongoing earthquake in the Islamic world – the Arab Spring that now seems headed into autumn – to try to influence it, and in this way modulate the war on jihadism, the persistent bassline of U.S. military commitments.  All the while keeping an eye on the Eurocrisis, which could challenge European social and geopolitical stability, but also the recovery of the American economy.

As for China.  Beijing was rooting for Romney.  The Communist Mandarins view Obama as untrustworthy, someone who pretends to dialogue with Beijing while arming Taiwan or attacking China on environmental issues.  Even worse from the Chinese perspective, Obama is treating China like the U.S. used to treat the Soviet Union, building a containment zone in collaboration with real or purported allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and India, in order to check Chinese ambitions.  In coming months, once Obama has met Xi Jinping, his new Chinese counterpart, we will see whether the world’s number one and number two leaders are destined to cooperate or to clash.

On the Iran front, Obama will do everything possible to avoid getting bogged down in a military adventure with potentially disastrous consequences.  A new war in the Gulf would suffocate the U.S. economic recovery, block growth in Asia, and send Europe into economic depression and chaos.  In recent months, White House emissaries have tried to probe Iran’s willingness to compromise on its nuclear program, in exchange for an end to sanctions and Iran’s readmission to world economic and political circles. But Netanyahu, probably the world leader least enthusiastic about the absence of change at the White House, remains convinced that Israel has no right to trust the ayatollahs and the pasdaran.  The chance of a war that would mark Obama’s second term, and more, seems greater today than the prospect of peace.

All the while, the war on terrorism continues.  Obama’s main success as commander in chief has been the execution of Osama Bin Laden, along with withdrawal from Iraq and cutting losses in Afghanistan.  But the unforeseen consequences of the Arab Spring have opened up new fronts of conflict.  For example in the Sahara, where a handful of drug trafficking terrorists has planted Al Qaeda’s flag in northern Mali, intended as a new base for worldwide jihadism.  At least that is the dominant view in Washington and in Paris (Mali’s former imperial metropole), supported by the UN Security Council, which has given its blessing to a war to recover the lost Sahara, with the U.S. and France managing it at long distance.  More generally, the convulsions that that are shaking the Arab and Muslim states are keeping Obama in reactive mode.  This confirms that Washington is not able to shape the future of the Middle East.

Twenty years ago Henry Kissinger described the strategic dilemma facing the U.S. after the Cold War as that of living in an epoch in which the U.S. could neither dominate the world nor withdraw, finding itself simultaneously omnipotent and totally vulnerable.  For all the unavoidable grandiosity of his rhetoric, eleven years after 9/11, looking out his Oval Office windows, Obama continues to see that world through that same prism.  The audacity of hope coexists with the understanding of reality.

Lucio Caracciolo
(Translated by Eric Terzuolo)