Obama's foreign policy headaches
While getting a deal on deficit reduction is the top domestic priority, Iran's nuclear program will likely be the president's main foreign policy headache.
Obama has said repeatedly that Iran will not be allowed to obtain or build a nuclear weapon on his watch. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a different threshold: that Iran cannot be allowed to achieve the capability to build a bomb. As long as Iran continues to install centrifuges, expand its nuclear facilities and add to its stockpile of enriched uranium, that threshold comes closer to being met.
Israel is as consumed with its own election campaign as the United States has been. For whoever takes office in January -- and Netanyahu is favored to win -- the Iran issue will again be front and center.
Asked in an interview Monday whether he would "pledge that Iran won't have a nuclear program" by the end of his next term, Netanyahu said, "Yes."
Despite the lack of personal rapport between Obama and Netanyahu, Washington will try to restrain Israel in the hope that the damage inflicted by trade and financial sanctions against Iran will bring about a change of heart in Tehran.
Netanyahu has said he won't be restrained by anyone if Israel's existence is threatened. "When David Ben-Gurion declared the foundation of the state of Israel, was it done with American approval?" he asked Monday.
The United States will want to delay any military action for as long as possible, given the unpredictable consequences in a Middle East already torn by revolution and Islamist renaissance, and the fear that striking Iran's nuclear facilities might actually rally support for the regime rather than undermine it.
Sanctions -- the favored weapon of the United States and European Union -- have curbed Iranian oil exports and other trade, causing a dramatic devaluation in the Iranian rial. High inflation and growing hardship, so the argument goes, will eventually force the Iranian leadership to come to the table for productive talks on its nuclear program.
Several rounds of multilateral talks this year made no headway, giving some credence to Romney's jibe that Iran is four years closer to a nuclear weapon than when Obama took office. But with the election over, another stab at dialogue is possible without exposing the president to accusations that he's soft on the ayatollahs.
With Russia adamantly opposed to stiffer United Nations sanctions and a new leadership in China, building an international consensus on Iran will be difficult.
On the other hand, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is weakened as a political force as his second and final term draws to a close. Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group says that unlike in 2009, when a possible deal was sabotaged by regime bickering, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "is probably strong enough to make a deal stick should he so choose. But a recalcitrant and bucking Ahmadinejad would make that outcome more difficult."
For the White House -- a delicate balancing act will demand a close reading of Iran's and Israel's intentions.
But Iran is not the only overseas crisis that needs urgent attention. With every passing week, the revolt in Syria becomes more difficult to influence and more likely to spill into neighboring states.
Some analysts expect a more muscular U.S. approach now that the election is out of the way -- one that might include setting up a zone in northwest Syria that is beyond the reach of President Bashar al-Assad's rule. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already foreshadowed a change in approach -- saying the United States will engage more with the country's internal opposition and less with the exiled and largely ineffectual Syrian National Council, which is Turkey's preferred representative.
"There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," Clinton said Oct. 31.
On another front, managing the military drawdown in Afghanistan -- something that was rarely discussed in the presidential election campaign -- will be another challenge.
Afghan security forces have been stood up; they are more numerous and more capable than four years ago. But two years before the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops, the Kabul government looks fragile and the Taliban undaunted. Critics have voiced concerns that the publicly announced withdrawal date only lets the Taliban know how long it must hold out before it can make another bid for resurgence.
Efforts to wean the "good" Taliban off the battlefield and into negotiations has so far gone nowhere. For Obama, whose first campaign stressed winning the war in Afghanistan and getting out of Iraq, the collapse of a government supported by so many billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars would be a humiliating reverse.
Last month, the International Crisis Group said the outlook was far from assuring.
"Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections (in Afghanistan in 2014) could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out," the group said.
Different problems, same solution
Whether it's Syria, Iran or the fiscal cliff, Obama must use the same principles to find a solution: develop a dialogue, find common ground, exploit opportunities and occasionally employ a well-calibrated threat.
That's what happened in 1997, when the Clinton administration reached a deal with the Republican congressional leadership to reduce the federal deficit and achieve a balanced budget in five years. The deal cut spending, and it cut taxes by $91 billion over five years -- while allowing the debt ceiling to rise to $5.95 trillion.
"We have come to an agreement that will lead us to less Washington spending, to tax relief for working Americans, to security for our senior citizens, and less dependency on government, more responsibility, and opportunity for individuals, communities, and states," said former Sen. Trent Lott, then the Republican leader in the Senate.