The last time a triumphant US President Barack Obama appeared before thousands of cheering supporters in Chicago and promised change, there was a sense that the election of the US’ first black president, whose middle name was Hussein, would transform the world. Since that moment in 2008, the world has indeed been transformed — but not by Obama.
The US’ role in the Arab spring, the great tectonic shift of his first term, was both wavering and largely irrelevant. Iran’s nuclear program advanced steadily no matter what the US did, threatening to trigger a new age of nuclear proliferation. Washington had little choice but to look on in wonder and apprehension at China’s phenomenal economic rise.
Obama now has four more years and a second chance to deliver on his promise to become an agent of change in the world. The logic of a second term will certainly push him to try. All presidents want an enduring legacy, and an obdurate, even vengeful, Republican majority in the House of Representatives will send Obama in search of one abroad, where he will enjoy a freer hand.
Obama has pulled US forces out of Iraq. By the end of 2014, US combat troops will have left Afghanistan. He has managed so far to keep the US out of the Syrian conflict, but aid to the armed opposition, overt and covert, is bound to creep up as the conflict drags on.
The greatest looming crisis offers the greatest opportunity. Iran is in the balance, but Obama also has a chance to avert another war in the Middle East and finally earn the Nobel Peace Prize he won at the beginning of his first term. A new round of international talks is due at the end of the month. The US has been holding secret bilateral discussions with Tehran in parallel, and Obama signaled publicly in a presidential debate that his administration is prepared to negotiate one-on-one.
The outlines of a possible deal are clear: Iran gives up production of 20 percent enriched uranium (the biggest proliferation threat) in return for sanctions relief. It also wins the right to carry on making low enriched uranium for power reactors, but in exchange has to accept more intrusive monitoring. Israel will not like such a deal, but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu backed the wrong horse in this US election race and will not have much of a say. It will ultimately be up to the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and the clerical-military regime around him, to make up their minds. Obama’s victory means that the ball will be very much in their court.
The most ambitious speech Obama made in his first term was delivered in Prague three months after taking office. He described a future for the world free of nuclear arms and pledged that the US, one of the world’s two leading nuclear powers, would play its part in moving in that direction.
The signs from the White House suggest that Obama still believes the world’s nuclear powers will have to disarm much further if they are to continue to expect the nuclear have-nots to accept the status quo.
The Obama administration will soon release guidance on what the US’ nuclear posture should look like in the coming four years, almost certainly pointing toward more cuts, perhaps to 1,000 strategic weapons.
Obama needs to settle the US relationship with Moscow to help sustain his “pivot to Asia,” intended to contain a rising, more assertive China — which is beginning to challenge the US’ regional allies over territory. He will continue to bolster those alliances, but he has little control over the driving force in the region, China’s economic growth and the political uncertainty that comes with it.
The rise of China and other powers, such as Brazil and Turkey, serves as a reminder that the US is increasingly operating in a multipolar world. Obama will probably still chafe against the diminishing capacity of a US president to shape events around the globe.
One important exception is the Middle East, specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US’ alliance with Israel gives Obama a powerful lever he can pull to influence the course of events, but he has so far balked at using it.
In his second would-be transformational speech on foreign policy, made in Cairo in June, 2009, Obama pledged to change the US’ role in the Middle East, and Arabs took that to mean more US pressure on Israel to accept a peace deal that left Palestinians with a viable state based on 1967’s borders. However, in a standoff with Netanyahu over Israeli West Bank settlements later that year, Obama blinked, mindful of the imperatives of re-election in a strongly pro-Israel country.
The question now is whether the president has the stamina to try again.