US President Barack Obama will effectively begin to build the global legacy he will leave behind on the first foreign trip of his second term next week to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.
Time speeds up for re-elected US leaders: more of Obama’s presidency has now passed than is to come. Given diplomacy’s plodding pace, Obama must act early to bring new foreign policy initiatives to term by his departure in 2017.
There are few secrets about the place in history that Obama wants to occupy.
He wants to be remembered as the president who ended two wars, restored the US’ tarnished image abroad, pivoted US power to the Pacific, dismantled al-Qaeda and laid the groundwork for an era of nuclear non-proliferation.
Lashing election foe Mitt Romney last year, Obama puffed out his chest as the commander-in-chief who got Osama bin Laden and brought US troops home.
However, global snake pits now threaten his foreign policy narrative, including Syria’s bloody unraveling, North Korea’s nuclear threats, a chill with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a China cyberspying standoff.
Obama took office seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but his effort fizzled.
No one expects this trip to make a difference, but the president will chafe in retirement if the sum of his efforts is a busted peace plan.
He will engage on two issues that may help define his legacy: Iran’s nuclear challenge — trying to dissuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from a military strike — and Syria, where he has staked out an increasingly lonely stand against arming rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Iran is going to be a critical foreign policy issue for the president in his second term. We have a commitment to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said.
Although Obama’s aspirational eyes are focused on Asia, which he will visit again this year, Middle East turmoil often steals his gaze.
“I don’t think the president by design is going to make the Middle East the centerpiece of his second term,” said Haim Malka of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And yet the Middle East will still affect the president and the second-term agenda in surprising ways.”
Even in Asia, snares await.
Threats by unpredictable young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to launch nuclear attacks — even if more rhetorical than literal — underline the intractability of a challenge Obama seems destined to pass to a successor.
North Korean and Iranian nuclear defiance points to a potential weakness of Obama’s doctrine of sparing the US more foreign entanglements.
Obama often boasts that he secured the most stringent sanctions ever against the two countries. Yet there is no sign that he has changed the nuclear calculations in Tehran and Pyongyang.
Since former US president Richard Nixon, all presidents have also been judged on their role in managing the generational challenge of China’s rise.
Trade niggles, maritime disputes and claims of a huge cyberspying effort linked to the Chinese state complicate Obama’s task, and he must now court a new leader in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Still, the Asia “pivot” is one area of Obama’s foreign policy with momentum.
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd assessed the rebalancing as “positive” and said he often asks concerned officials in China a question.
“Apart from North Korea, name me one country in Asia that has not welcomed the US rebalance,” he said. “It usually induces a response of silence.”
Things are not so rosy with Russia.
A top Obama win of the first term, the “reset” of ties with Moscow produced a nuclear arms deal and helped toughen UN sanctions against Iran.
However, the reset has been on life support since Putin reassumed the presidency last year.
The US president’s legacy will also be colored by mounting legal and moral questions over his drone strikes against extremists abroad.
Historians will also examine another facet of his effort to avoid foreign entanglements — pushing allies to the fore in anti-terror operations in Libya and Mali, an approach mocked by critics as “leading from behind.”
Obama scored a domestic political win by naming next year as an exit date for US troops in Afghanistan.
However, questions linger over the proficiency of Afghanistan’s NATO-trained forces, Taliban hopes of a comeback and the viability of the state when foreign troops leave.
Equally, from Washington, the withdrawal from Iraq is a success, but Obama’s legacy could be blemished if the country he left to fend for itself is torn apart by sectarian strife once more.