President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech signaled a desire to avoid foreign entanglements that could endanger his domestic agenda. George Washington wasn’t able to do that, and Obama may not be either.
Days before Obama spoke, Algerian militants killed three Americans, Japan said it might fire warning shots at Chinese aircraft that enter the airspace of contested islands, and Iran refused the United Nations access to a nuclear site. Then North Korea announced plans to conduct another nuclear test, making clear that it wants the capability to hit U.S. shores.
Obama’s focus on home -- he devoted two paragraphs of his address to foreign affairs -- reflects his priorities, as well as waning American support for playing global cop after a decade of war and budget deficits that limit U.S. flexibility. Even so, the churning Middle East, tensions in Asia and the weakness of allies may thwart his plans to concentrate on a domestic legacy.
“Nobody saw the Arab Spring coming, and something equally momentous and unexpected overseas could easily derail Obama’s desire to focus primarily on domestic issues,” said Stephen Walt, an international affairs professor at Harvard University, referring to the protests that have redrawn the Mideast’s political map. “A president can try to keep the world at bay, but the world has a way of knocking on his door even when it’s not welcome.”
In his 1796 farewell address, Washington counseled his countrymen to have “as little political connection as possible” to other nations, a warning that came amid calls by some Americans to form alliances with either Britain or France.
Presidents have struggled to heed his advice. Woodrow Wilson campaigned for re-election in 1916 by reminding voters that he had kept the U.S. out of World War I for two years. Halfway through his second term, some 117,000 Americans had died in the mud and trenches in the “war to end all wars.”
Today, the U.S.’s fortunes and security are entangled not only with overseas military and political commitments, but also by environmental issues and technological changes that are making oceans and borders irrelevant.
China and Russia are pushing agendas that clash with U.S. priorities in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are rising in Iraq and beyond, threatening the stability of Bahrain, home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Even with the killing of Osama bin Laden, Islamic militants built a stronghold in North Africa, and technology is creating ways that nations, militant groups and criminal gangs can strike with drones or computers -- and be struck.
The president made clear at his Jan. 21 inauguration that in dealing with such challenges, the U.S. will rely on alliances and institutions that “extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad.” His nominee for defense secretary, former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, is known for his wary approach to using military power. That pick, along with a shrinking military budget, also signals Obama’s intent to engage the world cautiously and selectively as he has in Syria and now Mali.
Neera Tanden, a former Obama adviser, said the emphasis on domestic issues reflects the president’s recognition that he has limited time to get his agenda through Congress before attention turns to midterm elections and the next presidential race.
“In his second, third and fourth year it makes more sense to me to focus on international issues,” said Tanden, who now heads the Center for American Progress in Washington. “This isn’t an opportunity to avoid something; he rightly thinks he has an ability to do things now that he may not have as much of an availability one or two or three years from now.”
At the same time, she said, “the history of foreign policy is that things come from nowhere and can dominate your agenda.”
If that happens, Europe, a pillar of the U.S. alliance system, may not be able to give Obama the space he needs to preoccupy himself with internal affairs.
The European Union’s sovereign debt crisis distracts EU leaders from acting on foreign policy issues and gives them fewer resources to do so, said Erik Jones, the director of European Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
The U.K. and the EU are helping the U.S. wind down the war in Afghanistan, confront North Korea’s nuclear provocations and deal with Iran.
In contrast, Russia has been an obstructionist to the U.S. side on Syria, backing the regime on UN resolutions meant to punish President Bashar al-Assad. Russia will likely continue to buck the U.S. on this and other issues, said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight in London.
“Russia is positioning itself as an alternate global power,” said Gevorgyan, who attributed the country’s “confrontational foreign policy choices” to “this syndrome of being a former superpower that gets ignored.”
Syria’s disintegration would likely lead to louder bipartisan calls for intervention in Obama’s second term, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, possibly forcing the president to reconsider his policy of offering only nonmilitary aid.
Egypt also poses a major concern. The country’s new Islamic-oriented government is party to a peace treaty with Israel and responsible for stability in the Sinai Peninsula, which has become a conduit for weapon and drug smuggling, and human trafficking. Two years after Egyptian protests began, though, economic woes and corruption still bring people into the streets. And some officials now doubt whether President Mohamed Mursi will live up to Egypt’s treaty obligations with Israel.
While the U.S. had wanted the EU to help steady countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen through economic development and aid, Europe’s financial struggles may make that impossible.
Britain and other European countries have cut military spending. France’s request for U.S. help in transporting troops in Mali, where they are trying to rout Islamic militants, highlights the French weakness in deployment, Jones said.
Strong European support in the Middle East would help the Obama administration on its major foreign policy goal: reducing its obligations in the area and shifting attention to Asia.
“The objective over a 10-year period is to have the U.S. benefit fully from Asia’s dynamic economic growth and to reduce the chances of costly and debilitating security problems in the region,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Asia is key to Obama’s goal of doubling U.S. exports by the end of 2014 to stimulate the U.S. economy and create jobs.
Obama may have to contend with disruptions to the region’s economic and strategic security because North Korea’s provocative behavior could affect stability there, particularly in Japan.
Heightening the possibility the U.S. could be pulled into growing regional security tensions, Lieberthal said, is “China’s greater willingness to pressure other countries” and Obama’s pledge to be more involved in the region.
That means the U.S. may get drawn into skirmishes over competing maritime claims in the resource-rich South and East China Seas between China and Japan, or a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye said he is “particularly concerned that the China-Japan dispute” over maritime claims must “not escalate by accident.”
In Afghanistan, Obama’s preoccupation isn’t with preventing conflict so much as ending it with the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces by the end of 2014. He has yet to decide how quickly to remove the 66,000 U.S. troops there.
That decision will affect the U.S. relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan, a partnership strained by disagreements over counterterrorism cooperation and the use of drones to kill insurgents.
Possibly the biggest threat to Obama’s dreams of a domestic focus is Iran. Israeli leaders have made clear they may take military action within months to wipe out the Persian nation’s nuclear facilities if talks to persuade the Islamic republic to abandon illicit aspects of its program fail. Right now, negotiators can’t even decide on a date or venue for the next round of meetings.
In a report released Jan. 14, a group of nonproliferation specialists calculated that by mid-2014, based on the current trajectory of its nuclear program, Iran would be able to secretly produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb.
Even so, some analysts consider military action against Iran unlikely, although Obama has vowed to use it if necessary.
“The ruling factions” in both the U.S. and Iran “don’t want to force the issue,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Mideast specialist at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the author of a book about Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
White House spokeswoman Jamie Smith declined to comment for this story.
“While it may seem we’ve taken a little bit of a break on our focus on foreign affairs, the rest of the world has not slowed down, unfortunately, on moving from crisis to crisis,” said Gordon Johndroe, who was White House National Security Council spokesman in President George W. Bush’s second term. “And I’m afraid a lot of that is going to come home to President Obama in the coming months.”
Presidents have little control over world events or the shape of their legacy, said Evan Thomas, a presidential historian and professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
He pointed to Bush, who stressed restraint in world affairs during his 2000 election campaign, then started wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, now the longest conflict in U.S. history.
“Presidents get caught by surprise all the time,” Thomas said.