President Obama. Let that phrase fall from your lips. How does it sound? Probable? At this stage in the campaign, prior to Ohio and Texas, it’s plausible at the very least. As head of the First World’s only superpower, he will face a series of challenges in the foreign policy arena. Regardless of experience, age or character, he will have a very busy in-tray come January ’09. We know where he will start.
Iraq is a searing wound on the American body politic. The key question for Americans is has the overthrow of Saddam made the Homeland a safer place and the answer is no. Apologetic Neo-Cons now lament their naivety, cruelly exposed by the activities of Blackwater and Halliburton. Liberals are appalled at the mess they have to clear up. A President McCain may stay the course but the conventional wisdom holds that the war is unsustainable domestically and internationally. Former Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has recently highlighted the enormous financial deadweight of the war – tragically, it’s a war gift that keeps on giving. A President Obama would have no attractive options. A withdrawal date within a year of coming to Office might seem too long – why wait? Any set date could act as deadline for increased Al-Qaeda. Fighting till the Endgame is impossible – when would he declare a righteous victory? The UN does not want to get involved in peace keeping in such a dangerous territory. This will be one of the defining decisions of an Obama first-term.
Which brings us to the War on Terror. Guantanamo is an international embarrassment. It must close. But how and when? Does he go for a swift closure coupling it with increased funding and focus on domestic security? Will he try to de-escalate the levels of fear many ordinary Americans are living with by emphasising the nature of risk in everyday life? Can Obama the word poet change the mood and the reality of the contempory climate of fear? Al-Qaeda are still a huge threat to American security – would Obama make good his statement to bomb Pakistan if, and the Pakistani Army is, they’re found to be encouraging or harbouring terrorists? Obama may adopt a line from the Gordon Brown administration in Britain by dropping the term ‘War on Terror’ and instead focus on defeating terrorism with a mixture of soft and hard power.
How will a President Obama treat with the new Russian President, Putin’s anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev? Russia, like a punchy old prize-fighter, has been throwing her weight around much to the chagrin and alarm of NATO and the EU in recent years. President Obama should seek to stress human rights and democracy and if he does he will probably be accused of lecturing Russia. Well, so what? The Russian Government’s treatment of journalists and freedom of speech has been frightening – in America, or the West you might be ignored as a commentator, but you won’t end up dead. Obama will be tested by Russian rhetoric and actions – his Secretary of State will have to consider being more critical of Russian foreign policy.
China will be another dilemma for Obama. Clearly, international trade has done little or nothing since the Tiananmen Square Massacre to democratise the country. The Communist Party is still endemically corrupt and China is unwilling to recognise that its own future self-interest lies in democracy and the rule of law. Does a President Obama seek to maintain the Clinton/Bush trade not tirade line? How would the US react to Chinese aggression against Taiwan? Will the US increase pressure on China to de-value its currency? Obama should approach China as one would approach a large, moody drunk – with considerable caution.
America holds huge influence over Israel and the Democrats can be relied on to continue largely unqualified support for Israeli diplomatic and military behaviour in the region. Obama will probably continue US policy of isolating Hamas and dealing with Fatah – he must also know that long term American interests demand that some form of equitable settlement be reached between Palestinians and Israelis. His political courage will be tested when it comes to condemning illegal Israeli activity; he would automatically be lining himself up to be accused of being soft on terrorism.
Will we see the beginning of détente in with Cuba? Or will the Miami exiles’ views hold sway and will an Obama administration tighten the economic noose around the island? Again, Americans need to ask themselves if Cuba is a threat to their domestic security. Realistically, the answer has to be no. Raul Castro may carry the family bogey name – but there’s a chance for Obama to announce an initiative in the early days of his Presidency to thaw relations between the two nations. With Miami having the electoral importance it has, Cuba could be a significant issue in November ’08.
Finally, and sadly for the continent in terms of international priorities, there’s Africa. Will Obama have an emotional and moral commitment to seek better governance on the continent? Will he seek to address trade reform and encourage a new generation of democratic leaders? Or will the US, like the EU, continue developmental aid and seek incremental reforms on the continent? Obama will decide if Africa should be treated strategically or whether it will remain left at the bottom of the in-tray for the next President of the United States.
Obama knows the limits of American influence in the world. He also knows the potential America has to act as a catalyst for change. He will come up against ‘unknowns’, as any American President will. But it’s by how he tackles the ‘knowns’ that Obama will be judged most keenly. He has the chance to change the world. And if he takes it, he will be remembered as great.