NPR logo For Obama, A Foreign Policy To-Do List For 2010

World

For Obama, A Foreign Policy To-Do List For 2010

President Obama delivers remarks at United Nations headquarters in New York in September. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Obama delivers remarks at United Nations headquarters in New York in September.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Heading into a new year, President Obama is juggling two unpredictable wars, a pair of rulers eager to realize their nuclear ambitions, a rising China and a scarred global economy, among other international challenges. He also faces an early referendum on his presidency with the 2010 midterm congressional elections.

Here's a look at what might top Obama's overseas to-do list in 2010:

A Foreign Policy To-Do List

  • Pacify Afghanistan

    Afghan forces keep watch at the site of a bomb blast near a guesthouse in Kabul on Dec. 15. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

    Now that Obama has embarked on a surge strategy with 30,000 additional U.S. troops heading to Afghanistan, it is undeniably Obama's war.

    His plan is to use those extra forces to help reverse the Taliban's recent gains, make a visible dent in the rising violence and jump-start the training of Afghan security forces.

    One of the many problems standing in his way: questions about the legitimacy of the Afghan government, whose reputation for corruption was cemented by rigged presidential elections in August. And as important parliamentary elections set for May 2010 approach, it's not clear that vote will be any cleaner.

    The U.S. will be looking for clear signs that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is serious about tackling corruption, training competent security forces and building capable ministries. Without real improvements, Obama could be in a tough place.

    "If Karzai and the Afghans aren't picking up their share of the responsibility, I don't think it's automatic that we'll stay longer or send over more troops," says Thomas Fingar, who served as the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis from 2005 to 2008.

    More broadly, Obama has tried to buy some time by saying that he plans to begin a drawdown in July 2010, but he will still have to demonstrate to voters back home that he is making some real progress there by next fall — ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November.

    Related: Afghanistan Topic Page

  • Draw Down Troops In Iraq

    Army Sgt. Donald Lewis of the 1st Cavalry Division is greeted by his wife, Nicole Lewis, after his brigade arrived home from a year of deployment in Iraq on Nov. 10 in Fort Hood, Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images

    Obama, who campaigned on ending the Iraq war, wants to be seen as ending at least one major conflict. Next year will be pivotal in determining whether or not he will be able to follow through on that pledge.

    U.S. combat troops are supposed to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011, but the schedule agreed upon by the U.S. and Iraq calls for significant departures next year.

    It won't be easy to stay on schedule. Already, a key national election, originally planned for January, has been pushed back to March after a drawn-out battle in the Iraqi Parliament over the rules for the vote.

    Even if the election is held on time, it often takes Iraqi politicians months to form a new government, meaning a U.S. drawdown could still be held up by an impasse.

    "If the election is not perceived as fair and results in serious contention within Iraq, and if history is a guide, it could play out in part with violence where some of the militias get reactivated," says Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis from 2005 to 2008. "We can imagine lots of scenarios where it gets ugly."

    Related: Iraq Topic Page

  • Counter Nuclear Ambitions Of Iran, North Korea

    Protesters gather at an anti-Iran rally outside U.N. headquarters as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the General Assembly in September. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    Mario Tama/Getty Images

    The Obama administration has set itself up for a tough battle over Iran early in 2010. Obama has told Tehran that it must either cooperate with the international community and prove its nuclear ambitions are peaceful by the end of 2009 or face new sanctions.

    "If there's one issue that's really baked in as an issue Obama is going to have to spend time on in 2010, it's Iran," says Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research firm. "They're going to have to move towards tough sanctions."

    Washington could start pushing for new United Nations sanctions as early as January, but it will be a real struggle to get Russia and China to go along with them. That could leave Obama in a tough spot to figure out how else to put new meaningful pressure on Iran.

    Meanwhile, the Iranian regime continues to sound more and more defiant, pledging to move ahead with new enrichment plans.

    "Things are likely to get worse in 2010 than they were in 2009," Bremmer adds.

    The U.S. is also juggling the nuclear issue with North Korea. But the multiparty talks over Pyongyang's own nuclear program tend to move at a glacial pace, and few analysts are predicting any breakthroughs or major crises next year.

    Instead, the Obama administration will likely be more focused on negotiations with Russia over reducing the two countries' own nuclear arsenals.

  • Manage China's Rise, Keep Options Open

    A giant portrait of Mao Zedong is carried during National Day celebrations in Beijing in October. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

    Perhaps the most important diplomatic relationship next year will be with China, where leaders are basking in the country's newfound economic might.

    China is the single largest holder of U.S. debt, and its booming economy has led some officials to push for greater international influence, even suggesting that countries should revisit the practice of using the U.S. dollar as the primary international reserve currency.

    Obama would like to extract some concessions from the Chinese — namely a revaluing of China's currency — to placate domestic critics who say China competes unfairly.

    "With the Chinese growth going as gangbusters as it is and U.S. unemployment going strong, it's going to be tough for Obama to keep a lid on labor and the media, who will be calling for tougher measures on China," says Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research firm.

    Obama's first trip to China in November went relatively smoothly, but he left Beijing with few concrete accomplishments. Aside from economic matters, Obama is relying on China to rein in North Korea's nuclear program and will push Beijing to support strong new sanctions against Iran.

    But it won't be easy. Chinese leaders, who are often preoccupied with trying to maintain their country's own stability, remain less willing to take strong stands on international political issues that might cost them down the line.

    "China is, as it has proclaimed, 'rising peacefully,' and unlike Russia, it is patently self-confident," Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, writes in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs. "But one can also argue that China is rising somewhat selfishly and needs to be drawn into constructive cooperation on global economic, financial and environmental decisions."

  • Close The Prison At Guantanamo Bay

    Detainees stand during an early morning Islamic prayer at the U.S. military prison for "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    John Moore/Getty Images

    Two days after his inauguration, Obama issued an executive order to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within one year. But in November, the president was forced to admit that he would not be able to meet his own deadline.

    Obama did pledge that the prison will still be closed sometime in 2010, and Attorney General Eric Holder is sending five of the most high-profile terrorism suspects in custody there, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to New York to face trial in a civilian federal court.

    But the mechanics of what happens to the other detainees still have to be finalized. Some could still be sent to their home countries for trial, while others will likely appear before U.S. military commissions.

    In December, Obama ordered the U.S. government to purchase a maximum security state prison in Thomson, Ill., to house many of the prisoners currently in Guantanamo.

    But with Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress blasting plans to bring the detainees onto U.S. soil, this will be a difficult political fight, particularly in an election year.

    The Obama administration will continue to get hit from all sides on this issue. While some in Washington are worried about detainees being acquitted because of insufficient evidence or over concerns about their coercive detention, others worry that the military commissions are still not seen as capable of delivering credible justice.

  • Reach Out To Pariah Regimes

    Cuba's President Raul Castro (far right), Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura and Revolutionary Commander Ramiro Valdes attend a rally in July. Javier Galeano/Associated Press hide caption

    toggle caption
    Javier Galeano/Associated Press

    Perhaps the clearest way that Obama has worked to show he is different from his predecessor is by demonstrating a willingness to conduct diplomacy with America's enemies.

    The Obama administration has tried (with little success) to resuscitate talks with North Korea and has made subtle overtures to Tehran. In November, it evendispatched Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to Myanmar, also known as Burma, to lead the highest-level U.S. delegation to visit the military junta since 1998.

    "Sanctions without outreach — and condemnation without discussion — can carry forward a crippling status quo," Obama said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. "No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."

    Re-establishing relations with pariahs like Myanmar or longtime enemies like Cuba could go a long way towards setting a new tone for the U.S. on the world stage, but that doesn't mean it's likely.

    "I don't think reconciliation with Cuba is in the works," says Richard Weitz, a foreign policy expert at the Hudson Institute, who notes that the government remains just as oppressive under the day-to-day rule of Raul Castro as it was under his brother Fidel. The only thing that is likely to change the U.S. calculation, Weitz says, "is some sort of popular explosion by the people there."

  • Avoid Disaster In Pakistan

    A Pakistani soldier stands guard near a bomb blast site in the outskirts of Peshawar on Dec. 3. A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

    Between its nuclear arsenal, its perennially unstable government and lingering al-Qaida safe havens in its lawless tribal regions, Pakistan has topped any recent list of U.S. fears for the future.

    Over the past few months, there was a bit of good news after Pakistan managed to launch some of its most effective offensives in years against insurgents in the tribal regions.

    But there are still significant portions of the country that are effectively beyond the government's control and militants continue to successfully carry out deadly bombings. The country was thrown into deeper political turmoil this month when its Supreme Court threw out an amnesty deal that was protecting President Asif Ali Zardari and other top politicians from possible prosecution for corruption.

    "It's hard to point to things that are really going in a good direction in Pakistan, with the problems of poor education, inadequate opportunities for young people, the gender discrimination, the weakness of civil society, and the government not having any money because it goes into the military and debt servicing," says Thomas Fingar, the U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for analysis from 2005 to 2008. "I can't rule out another military takeover. Our ability to prevent that from happening is limited."

    Some analysts also worry that the Pakistani government could be provoked into reopening hostilities with India, which still blames Islamabad for not going after the group that staged the 2008 Mumbai attack.

    "With the Pakistanis really going after the militants in their tribal areas, those militants [have real incentive] to get the Pakistanis to start focusing again on their traditional enemy," says Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research firm, referring to India. "If that were to happen, that's going to take up a lot of time."

  • Reach A Real Global Climate Change Deal

    "Top-hat iceberg" in Antarctica. Jason Orfanon/NPR hide caption

    toggle caption
    Jason Orfanon/NPR

    The mixed outcome at the Copenhagen climate change summit sets up a complicated year for Obama.

    The U.S. secured an unprecedented pledge in Copenhagen from key developing nations China, India and Brazil to limit greenhouse gases and submit to an unspecified level of international monitoring.

    But the watered-down deal falls well short of the political agreement to commit to strict emissions limits that Obama hoped for when he made his high-profile personal intervention at the conference — not to mention the original goal of setting up a negotiation over a legally binding treaty by the end of 2011.

    The international response to the agreement was also lukewarm, with many countries saying the agreement falls well short of what is needed. Countries are supposed to continue negotiations next year, and the first signs of their seriousness will come by Feb. 1, the deadline for governments around the world to submit their own voluntary emissions pledges.

    At home, Obama will be under pressure to show that the U.S., the world's second largest emitter, is doing its part. One key step will be persuading Congress to adopt climate legislation to implement a domestic emissions reduction scheme.

    "He will have to work pretty assertively to make sure that the Americans aren't the only ones to get blamed if a climate change deal isn't reached," says Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research firm.

    In June, the House approved a measure calling for a 17 percent reduction in emissions by 2020, and the Senate is likely to debate the measure in 2010.

    The international monitoring provisions of the Copenhagen agreement should help persuade some moderate Democrats to vote for domestic emissions reduction, but many Republicans remain staunchly opposed. And the politics will only get more complicated as the midterm election approaches.

  • Manage Global Economic Recovery

    Chinese investors monitor screens showing stock indexes at a trading house in Shanghai. Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

    Even though the world economy appears to be rebounding, a debt crisis in Dubaiand the potential for another in Greece are reminders that a full recovery is far from ensured.

    Obama could face difficult trade-offs between calls to bolster or even bail out troubled economies and the need to boost U.S. exports to help America's lagging job market.

    But as the dust begins to settle, there is a deeper challenge for the U.S. and other leading economies.

    "It's the re-engineering of the international financial order," says Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis from 2005 to 2008, who adds that the Group of 20 is one likely vehicle for this negotiation. "There is the need for more different kinds of regulation at a global scale as we make the shift from development assistance and trade regulation into the management of global interdependence and new kinds of financial flows."

    At the same time, nations like China, which blame the global recession on lax U.S. regulations, are demanding that Washington strengthen its oversight of U.S. financial markets, although Obama cannot afford to be seen as pandering to China.

    In January, the Senate will take up a financial regulatory bill that passed the House this month

    But Republicans are much more interested in having Obama help them push long-stalled free-trade deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama through Congress. They argue the agreements could help boost the U.S. economy, while many of the president's Democratic allies in Congress fear they spawn additional job losses.

  • Put Domestic Priorities First

    A homeless man is reflected in the window of an empty showroom of a closed General Motors dealership in Nashville, Tenn. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption
    Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    Perhaps Obama's top goal will be trying to prevent or avoid any time-consuming international crises that would distract him from his domestic agenda.

    The 2010 midterm elections will be all about the U.S. jobless rate, which stands at 10 percent and is expected to remain high for most of the year.

    Obama will want to be seen spending most of his time trying to create jobs at home and getting the massive health care overhaul bill through Congress.

    "It's going to be tougher for him on the domestic front in many ways," says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research firm. "He needs to try to keep foreign policy as much off his agenda as possible, and he knows it's going to be hard."