Bloomberg View: Obama's Foreign Policy To-Do List

From Iran to Syria to the euro zone: What the world has in store for Obama
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Every four years, as 300 million Americans go into the convulsion of another presidential election, the other 6.6 billion people on the planet must wait as the candidates slug it out. Treaty talks, potentially life-or-death decisions, and diplomatic appointments are in limbo. Then, if a new president is elected, the rest of the world must brace for a bad case of policy whiplash, as a new U.S. administration seeks to undo the work of its predecessor.

At the least, President Obama’s reelection has averted that dizzying prospect. This may be one reason why so many world leaders seemed to react with relief. A little continuity isn’t a bad thing, especially given the Robespierre-like intensity with which voters have dispatched other world leaders since the financial crisis.

With the campaign over, Obama will immediately need to address some knotty security issues. Exhibit A is the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The administration’s approach is having an impact: Sanctions continue to erode the Iranian economy, inciting public dissatisfaction with the Islamic regime. The rial has slumped as much as 40 percent against the dollar since August, leading to spiraling inflation.

Obama needs to intensify the pressure by persuading India, Japan, and South Korea to make further “significant” reductions in Iranian imports. He should push to ban all transactions—not just oil-related business—with the Central Bank of Iran and its satellites and expand sanctions beyond petroleum production to all aspects of the Iranian energy sector, which is fully controlled by the congressionally blacklisted Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The president will also have to come to some understanding with Israel on where to draw a “red line” on Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon and the circumstances that would lead to military action. The Obama administration has vehemently denied reports it agreed to direct talks with the Iranians, but we don’t object to such discussions. They just shouldn’t reward Iran for half-measures: Until the country’s leaders agree to strictly enforced limits on uranium enrichment and inspections that provide assurance Iran can’t build a nuclear bomb, the heat must stay on.

In Syria, the ongoing civil war has no good or simple answer, nor is there a strong desire among Americans to undertake another armed intervention à la Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, the administration has been slow to take those actions that it could. Whoever replaces Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should begin to engage publicly with Syrians fighting inside the country. Obama should get more clandestine U.S. personnel on the ground to support Syria’s non-Islamist opposition, identify a potential transitional leadership, and take control of the flow of weapons to the Free Syrian Army from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to ensure that arms don’t fall into the hands of jihadist and other groups.

In the broader Middle East, the president cannot sustain his see-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach to the brewing tumult in countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan. Obama officially supports the expansion of democracy throughout the region. That commitment would be severely tested by any popular uprising in the Gulf states. Accordingly, the president would be wise to privately lean on the Gulf monarchs to usher in democratic reforms now rather than risk losing power (not to mention their lives and liberty) altogether.

As more Arab political systems open up, Islamic parties will gain influence. The administration needs to redouble efforts to establish, when possible, trusting relationships with these forces. The U.S. can’t dictate the course of the Arab awakening, but it can be better prepared to navigate its twists and turns.

Durable progress just about anywhere in the Middle East will require at least grudging cooperation with China and Russia, two nuclear-armed United Nations Security Council members with strong—and in China’s case, growing—geostrategic interests there. Both countries were also the targets of some heavy-handed rhetoric on the campaign trail. Two quick ways to dispel tensions would be for the U.S. to push up the next meeting of the high-profile U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which it is supposed to host early next summer, and for the lame-duck Congress to repeal the obsolete anti-Soviet Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974. By granting Russia permanent normal trade relations status, the U.S. can increase its exports to what is the world’s seventh-biggest economy, but only America’s 20th-biggest trading partner.

That brings us to the last item on our to-do list and the first thing on most Americans’ minds: jobs.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, the president vowed to double the country’s exports by the end of 2014. The U.S. isn’t on track to reach that goal. Obama should invigorate the effort by pressing harder for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that was first initiated under President George W. Bush, and for an EU-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis, would eliminate $6.4 billion in annual duties on U.S. exports. And if Obama is serious about working with Romney to move the country forward, one easy way to do so would be to pursue expanded trade with Latin America, particularly Brazil and Argentina, which the Republican candidate rightly identified as emerging powerhouses.

Of course, many other big global challenges loom for the second Obama administration, from a tottering European Union to a melting Arctic. But first things first. The world has been waiting. Time to get back to it—until 2016, that is.

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