Iran, Russia and Islamic State will matter more.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Obama's Final Legacy to Be Set by Foreign Policy

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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There's been a lot of handwringing over whether President Barack Obama's tone and message in the January State of the Union address and last week's budget were too confrontational, dashing hopes for legislative and legacy-bolstering achievements.

The reality: Congressional Republicans and the White House will score a few accomplishments this year because it's in the interests of both sides, regardless of the tone or specific proposals they embrace now.

As for the history books, the final quarter of this presidency -- like most of its predecessors -- will be enhanced or tarnished by foreign policy, an area where Obama has limited control.

There are many opportunities and problems confronting the president, including the prospect of completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which could be central to U.S. economic involvement with Asia. But the big three issues that might keep the president awake at night are Iran, the so-called Islamic State and Russia.

"The president faces geopolitical challenges greater than any in our lifetime,” says Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs research organization.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance and implications of whether a deal is reached this spring to curb Iran's nuclear weapons capacity. “It’s the core, centerpiece,” says Sandy Berger, the former national security advisor to President Bill Clinton.

If a deal is cut, it almost certainly will be opposed by the Israelis and many members of Congress, including some Democrats. The president will take the issue to the country, and warn that the alternative probably is war. In a private session with Senate Democrats last month, Obama pointedly said that if Congress undercut any agreement he would demand a vote on an "interdiction" of Iran. This president’s history of rallying the public isn’t very encouraging: Consider, for example, his lack of success on gun control.

There would be other grave consequences to the failure to reach an agreement. It’s questionable whether the U.S. could keep together the coalition imposing sanctions on Iran. Faced with the certainty that the Iranians would proceed with the development of nuclear weapons, the Israelis might want to strike if the U.S. doesn’t. A war with Iran would make the Iraq conflict seem like a Little League game.

Regarding the Islamic State, there have been mildly encouraging developments. Kurds retook the city of Kobani; the U.S. airstrikes have taken a toll, and some funding from black market oil has been eliminated. But, Richard Perle, a prominent neoconservative national security expert, says the picture remains bleak.

“They still are running a territory the size of England and France put together and with any victories they achieve, there may be Muslims all over the world wildly inspired by them and creating problems in as many as 30 countries,” he said.

With less than two years left in office, it would be virtually impossible for the administration to achieve the objective, enunciated by Defense Secretary-designate Ashton Carter, of a “lasting defeat” of the Islamic State.

The best case is that by the end of this administration the few Arab nations in the anti-Islamic State coalition have held together, and aren't torn apart by the Sunni-Shiite schism. In addition, the U.S. could intensify the strikes, possibly with a small group of advisers on the ground. If the enemy is in retreat, that would be an accomplishment.

On Russia, President Vladimir Putin is showing no sign of backing down in Ukraine, despite biting economic sanctions. And, he’s threatening to put pressure on Moldova and Azerbaijan. The need is to contain him on Ukraine and deter him elsewhere.

If oil prices remain at low levels, some American strategists speculate that economic conditions will pinch Putin so hard that he’ll need to seek relief. But the pressure could also push him to be more bellicose. Moreover, Ukraine is an even worse economic basket case than Russia, probably requiring tens of billions in assistance.  

There are two widely divergent views of how all this could play out. The American exceptionalists say Obama is too passive, and the next president, whether Hillary Clinton or a Republican, will have a better appreciation of the need for U.S. global leadership and push a more assertive foreign policy.

 The other view is that America's days as a global empire are numbered. In a new book, "America in the Shadow of Empires," the political scientist David Coates argues that the U.S. is overextended militarily, imposing an additional burden on a fraying domestic economy and that a "measured and moderate" rollback of foreign entanglements is essential.   

Obama's final two years will be about trying to find a path between those two positions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net