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U.S.: Obama Faces Increasingly Daunting Picture Overseas

Analysis by Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jan 26 2010 (IPS) - While President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union Address Wednesday night will almost certainly focus on the economy, unemployment, and other pressing domestic issues, an increasingly worrisome international situation is likely to be tugging at the back of his mind.

In the Middle East and South Asia, which absorbed most of his foreign policy energy since his inauguration one year and one week ago, Obama has made little, if any, progress in advancing two of his top regional priorities – moving decisively towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stabilising Afghanistan.

And while he has kept to his timetable for gradually withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, recent political developments there – including the pending disqualification of some 500 mainly Sunni politicians from running in the March elections, as well as this week’s deadly bombings in the heart of Baghdad – have underlined the fragility of what progress has been achieved there.

Similarly, Obama has successfully fended off pressure from Israel and its politically powerful backers here to pursue a policy of confrontation with Iran. However, it remains unclear how long he can continue to do so, particularly in the absence of a more forthcoming response from Tehran’s embattled and faction-ridden regime and greater unity from other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, notably Russia and China.

But while challenges in the Islamic world – most of them inherited from the disastrous policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush – are sure to remain on the foreign policy front burner during Obama’s second year in office, Asia, particularly relations with Japan and China, is also emerging as a major – and potentially even more consequential – area of concern.

And just as Obama’s popular support, while still higher than any other national political figure here, has diminished compared to his first months in office, the enormous goodwill generated by his election overseas appears to be fading – albeit far more gradually.

The disappointing conclusion to the Copenhagen Climate Summit, from which Europe was literally excluded from the final bargaining – coupled with Obama’s military escalation in Afghanistan and relentless pressure on fellow-NATO members to increase their own commitment there – highlighted for many in the “Old World” that U.S. policy was marked more by continuity than by change, despite the presidential succession.

Even in Latin America, Obama’s star appears on the wane as widespread expectations of a new era in hemispheric ties were dispelled.

Old resentments re-emerged over his timidity in easing Washington’s 50-year-old embargo against Cuba, his lack of consultation in negotiating access accords to military bases in Colombia, and his abrupt abandonment of U.S. demands that Honduran President Manuel Zelaya be restored to office after last June’s military coup d’etat.

The fact that Obama enters his second year in office in a weakened political position at home – most recently and dramatically expressed with last week’s loss in Massachusetts of the Democrats’ critical 60th seat in the Senate – will almost certainly reduce his freedom of action on the international stage.

Without a filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber, meaningful U.S. legislation to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – which most international observers regard as a pre-condition for a binding new international treaty to take the place of the Kyoto Protocol – will be significantly more difficult to pass.

Much the same applies to Obama’s hopes of gaining Senate ratification of the long-pending Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which experts see as critical to the credibility of the ambitious nuclear non-proliferation agenda that he first laid out in detail in a speech last April.

To prevail on either or both, Obama will have to spend precious political capital, even to get conservative Democrats, who are most vulnerable in the upcoming mid-term elections in November – let alone Republicans – to support him.

Failure or delay on either these initiatives, however, is likely to deal a major blow to both his international credibility, especially among Washington’s European allies, and to his efforts to promote greater multilateral cooperation.

Similarly, Obama’s perceived weakness and the electoral concerns of Democrats in Congress will likely make him less inclined to pressure Israel to make key compromises on a proposed two-state solution, despite recent assertions by his special envoy, George Mitchell, that Washington expects an agreement to be concluded within two years.

Continued paralysis on that front, however, is deeply worrying to many administration officials and independent experts who believe it will further weaken moderate forces throughout the Arab world and beyond to the benefit of Iran, as well as al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Some, including Washington’s closest Arab allies, are warning of a new Palestinian intifada that could, depending on how Israel and Washington react, propel anti-U.S. sentiment in the region to the unprecedented levels reached under Bush, especially after the 2003 invasion and again during last year’s Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the fragility of the political situation in Iraq – especially the disqualification of Sunni candidates allegedly tied to the Baath Party – is causing considerable heartburn here, with a number of experts warning that, if sustained, the move could destabilise the country and force Washington to completely revise its exit strategy.

At the same time, senior U.S. military officials are predicting a bloody year in Afghanistan as they and Washington’s NATO allies try to reverse the perception that the Taliban insurgency is winning the war. Their recent failure to persuade Pakistan’s army to take on Taliban sanctuaries in North Waziristan will likely make their task far more difficult.

But Asia could yet provide the administration with its most vexing long-term challenges.

After nearly 15 years of relative quiet, Sino-U.S. relations may be entering a period of serious strain amid charges and counter-charges of internet censorship and spying, strenuous protest over anticipated U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and a Chinese military build-up that, combined with Beijing’s status as Washington’s biggest creditor, has created growing unease here about its emergence as a global power.

At the same time, the election victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), whose foreign policy platform called for a readjustment of Tokyo’s security relations with Washington and closer ties with Beijing and the rest of Asia, appears to have flummoxed policy makers here.

Unless carefully handled, the ongoing contretemps over the relocation of U.S. forces on the southern island of Okinawa could well mark the unwelcome beginning of a fundamental reassessment of Washington’s most important and consequential strategic alliance in the Pacific.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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