President Barack Obama faces numerous challenges in South Asia in his second presidential stint. Will the slogans of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ do the job this time around?
Winning the U.S. presidential elections with a whopping 332 electoral college votes over his Republican rival Mitt Romney, Barack Obama faces enormous challenges in his second term. Excluding the domestic predicament, namely a devastated economy and the rising tide of centrifugal forces in some American states, the real challenge lies within the realm of foreign policy.
How will the Obama administration respond to the looming crisis in Gaza, the threat of a showdown between Iran and Israel on the nuclear issue, the situation in Afghanistan and dealing with the new Chinese leadership? Unlike Mitt Romney who, during the election debates, pursued an aggressive and hawkish approach vis-à-vis Palestine, Iran and China, the Obama administration demonstrated a greater degree of maturity and political prudence by not advocating a belligerent stance. However, with a hostile majority in the House of Representatives, it will be difficult for President Obama to pursue his domestic and foreign policy agenda during his second term.
Four major foreign policy initiatives require an immediate response from the Obama administration. First is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issue of peace and stability in the Middle East. The recent escalation of the Gaza conflict poses a serious threat to peace in the region. If the Islamist regime in Cairo tilts in favor of Hamas, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 mediated by then U.S. president Jimmy Carter will be jeopardized. The failure of subsequent U.S administrations to salvage the Oslo accords of September 1993 signed between PLO chief Yasser Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister Rabin caused a serious rift between Israel and its Arab neighbors, worsening relations with Gaza. Furthermore, armed conflict in Syria, Yemen and the fragility of proAmerican regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain also raise serious questions about the surge of anti- American forces.
The “Arab Spring” of 2011 resulted in a rise of militancy and radicalization among the youths, which continues to be a destabilizing factor in the Middle East. The Obama administration must not adopt an indifferent stance vis-avis the critical issues in the Middle East and its silence or rather approval of Israel’s blatant acts of aggression against the Palestinians in Gaza will vitiate U.S. image in the region.
Second, the possible escalation of the Iran-Israel conflict over the nuclear issue and the continued sanctions on Iran by the U.N. Security Council will certainly pose a major challenge to the Obama administration. President Obama is likely to resist the pressure from hard liners in Washington and Israel to take military action against Iran before it advances its nuclear weapons program. For Israel, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and weapons are Israel centric as is evident from years of the anti-Israeli position taken by the Iranian leadership. But, Iran’s nuclear weapons program is also considered a major security threat by some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Third, the situation in Afghanistan is fluid and will require critical policy measures before foreign forces leave in 2014. Republicans have vehemently opposed Obama’s withdrawal strategy and will exploit the situation should Afghanistan become violent and uncontrollable. In addition to this, the policy and process of “engaging Taliban” for peace in Afghanistan may be counterproductive if Taliban resistance groups escalate their attacks on U.S/NATO forces and attempt to seize power. On a number of occasions, Taliban leaders have announced a desire to return to the same policy in Afghanistan, which they were adhering to when they were in power from 1996-2001. In such a scenario, Afghanistan will once again become a hub of global terrorism under Al-Qaeda.
Finally, as far as Pakistan is concerned, the relationship may be more of the same with a fluctuation in drone attacks on tribal areas but no qualita- tive change in terms of reviewing its policy vis-à-vis Islamabad. General elections in Pakistan are right around the corner and will undoubtedly result in turmoil, political polarization and schism. If drone attacks continue with the same frequency or are escalated during the election campaign, it will definitely have a negative impact on political forces that want to eradicate extremism, militancy, radicalization and terrorism. Anti-Americanism will be at an all-time high and a major factor in the 2013 election campaign.
Four more years for the Obama administration will provide an opportunity for the United States to correct its image internationally, particularly in the Muslim world. Support for democracy, human rights and social justice will certainly enhance its credibility. The U.S. will continue to encourage engagement between India and Pakistan for the management and resolution of conflicts. However, the U.S. role in South Asia will be influenced by the developing situation in Afghanistan as well as elections in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh in 2013 and 2014. The role of other global stakeholders, particularly China, will also play a strong role in the region. Further political repression in China, the issue of Tibet and trade matters with the U.S. will continue to be a major source of concern for the Obama administration. One thing is clear: while the President may be able to adopt stronger policies in his second term, without any fear of rallying to secure another term, the coming four more years will present insurmountable challenges. A Republican majority in the House of Representative, meager majority of Democrats in the Senate and the perceived assertion of pro-independence groups in different American states will certainly result into a political stalemate and the deepening of the foreign policy predicament.