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Obama's return a test of evolving foreign policy

Caption
Pakistanis celebrate the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Phrases to describe some of the looming foreign policy challenges for President Barack Obama didn't even exist when he took the oath of office the first time: the Arab Spring, the Fordo Facility housing Iran's underground uranium enrichment labs, the stealth power of new viruses bearing names such as Stuxnet and Flame in the shadow world of cyber-sabotage.

But that also doesn't mean the list of earlier conflicts, stalemates and crises — inherited by Obama in his first term and, in some cases, reaching back decades — is any shorter for the White House.

The global financial downturn hangs on stubbornly in a 21st century matrix that binds, to varying degrees, all major economies into a shared economic destiny. The U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is winding down as the Iraq mission before it, but U.S. policymakers face perhaps even more complex diplomacy and deal-making ahead in Kabul. Meanwhile, other flashpoints linked to al-Qaida and Islamist extremists such as Mali and Nigeria could rise on the U.S. agenda. And, as always, showdowns that span generations — including Cuba and the Israel-Palestinian impasse — hold a spot on Washington's radar.

In an increasingly interconnected and politically complex world, Obama's next term may test America's evolving — and perhaps more nuanced — roles as a superpower confident in its military strength yet trying to reclaim its "soft power" status of nimble diplomacy and building coalitions.

"We want to pass on a country that's safe and respected and admired around the world," Obama said in his victory speech Tuesday, "a nation that is defended by the strongest military on Earth ... but also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being."

The only real foreign policy sure bet is that America's current top diplomat will change. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced plans to retire but could stay a few weeks into the new year. Her successor — like many for decades — will take on a portfolio heavily weighted toward the Middle East.

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IRAN

Obama has stood by the policy that sanctions and diplomacy are the best course to leverage possible concessions from Iran on its nuclear program, which the West and others fear could eventually lead to atomic weapons. Iran says it seeks reactors for energy and medical research only.

The next major crossroads for the White House could be whether to consider any changes in its negotiating tactics with Tehran after three rounds of failed talks this year between envoys from Iran and world powers. Iranian officials have suggested they would consider scaling back on uranium enrichment — the centerpiece of the stand-off with the West — if some of the economic pressures were eased.

So far, Obama and Western allies have shown no willingness to roll back sanctions as part of a step-by-step process proposed by the Iranians. But Washington has said it would be open to groundbreaking direct talks with Tehran if there were a real chance of nuclear compromises, but that military options remain on the table.

Iran has countered with threats of hardening positions — possibly a reflection of growing unease as sanctions cut into critical oil sales and drive the Iranian currency to record lows. Iranian officials warn they could start boosting uranium enrichment above current top levels unless the West is ready to negotiate on sanctions.

Iran claims the U.S., Israel and allies were responsible for computer viruses such as Stuxnet that caused malfunctions in centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

In turn, some cyber-security experts suggest Iran was behind malware that infiltrated Internet systems at sites such as U.S. banks and the Saudi state oil giant Aramco. Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the U.S. will strike back against a cyberattack, underscoring the Obama administration's growing concern that Iran could be the first country to unleash cyberterrorism on America.

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SYRIA

U.S. allies appear to be expecting a new, bolder approach from Obama on Syria. But it remains to be seen if the U.S. plans to change course in any significant way in a conflict that has already claimed more than 36,000 lives since March 2011.

World powers have shown no appetite for foreign military intervention, and there are fears that arming the fractious opposition could backfire, with powerful weapons falling into the hands of extremists. The U.S. supplies only non-lethal assistance to the political opposition.

Against this backdrop, a diplomatic process that has proven increasingly moribund and faltering has been the only real option for peace thus far. NATO has insisted it will not intervene in Syria without a clear United Nations mandate. But Syrian President Bashar Assad's allies, Russia and China, have blocked strong action against Damascus at the U.N. Security Council.

Britain this week called on the U.S. and other allies to do more to shape the Syrian opposition into a coherent force, saying Obama's re-election is an opportunity for the world to take stronger action to end the deadlocked civil war.

And Turkey said NATO members — including the United States — have discussed using Patriot missiles along the Syrian border. It was unclear whether the purpose was to protect a safe zone inside Syria or to protect Turkey from Syrian regime attacks.

In the first official comments from Damascus on the U.S. presidential elections, an editorial in the ruling Baath party's newspaper said "the Syrian crisis would be politically resolved" during Obama's second term. A U.S.-led military intervention is unlikely, the al-Baath newspaper also claimed Thursday.

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AFGHANISTAN

While the war in Afghanistan, now in its 12th year, was barely a topic on the campaign trail, the country will certainly command a great deal of Obama's attention in his second term.

Obama soon will receive his top military officials' recommendations about how fast to withdraw the roughly 66,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan. The first 33,000 American troops withdrew by the end of September.

His administration is expected to begin in earnest crafting an agreement with the Afghan government to define the rules for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after the end of 2014 when nearly all U.S. and NATO combat forces will have left the country.

That same year, Afghans are scheduled to elect a new president to replace Hamid Karzai, who is prevented by the constitution from running for a third term. The U.S. and international community does not want the next presidential election marred by the same fraud as in 2009. Some Afghans worry that having the election the same year that the international troops end their combat mission in Afghanistan will further destabilize the nation.

Afghans also are worried whether their own soldiers and police will be able to secure the country, which remains riddled with poverty, corruption, a weak government and political instability. The U.S.-led coalition says it is confident that the country will be stable and that the Afghan security forces — now 352,000 strong — will be able to keep their homeland from becoming a haven for international terrorists.

The Obama administration also will continue to try to lure the Taliban's top leaders to the negotiating table in hopes of finding a political resolution, but these overtures have yielded little traction so far.

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ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS

In his first term, Obama plunged immediately into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hoping his hands-on approach would bring an elusive peace deal. But peace talks remain stalled after he first supported — then retreated from — a demand for an Israeli settlement freeze

Obama starts his second term on the eve of Israel's Jan. 22 elections and with Palestinians vowing to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize an independent state of Palestine — a move opposed by the U.S. as well as Israel, which favor negotiations. The Palestinians, in congratulating Obama on his re-election, urged him to support their U.N. appeal, but the American ambassador to Israel rejected that course.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is returned to the helm, as expected, some analysts expect Obama — who had frosty relations at best with the Israeli leader — might be freed in a second term to pressure Israel to make painful overtures to the Palestinians. The Palestinians have refused for four years to negotiate without a settlement freeze.

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CHINA

Obama's re-election averts the immediate prospect of the United States designating China a currency manipulator, which Romney had promised to do on his first day in office. That would have been a setback to relations and could even have triggered a trade war between the world's two biggest economies.

During his first term, Obama stepped up trade complaints against China but also sought to deepen ties with Beijing to diminish the prospects of a confrontation with a Chinese military that is starting to challenge U.S. pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific.

This week, China embarks on its own once-in-a-decade leadership transition that will be critical in setting the tone for relations between the powers in the years ahead.

The run-up to the Communist Party Congress, which opened Thursday, has seen an escalation in tensions between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea. The U.S. has a treaty obligation to help Japan if it is attacked — a scenario Washington is eager to avoid.

Obama will be looking to reassure China that the U.S. does not seek to block its rise as a global power but will also be pressing it to abide by international norms. A strident nationalistic tone in China's state rhetoric in its dispute with Japan has fueled concerns that China's new leaders could increasingly resort to such patriotic appeals if the nation's juggernaut economy slows and public dissatisfaction with the Communist Party grows further. That heightens the risk of a more adversarial relationship between the U.S. and China.

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RUSSIA

During his first term, Obama made improving relations with Russia a priority. His so-called reset policy yielded dividends, including a major nuclear arms control pact, Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization and Russian help with the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

But as he moves into his second term, Obama's Russia policy could take a bumpy turn. Among the areas of contention: Russia's backing of Assad's regime in Syria and opposition to increased Western sanctions on Iran.

In March, Obama was caught on a microphone telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev that the U.S. would have more flexibility to work on missile defense issues after the election. Moscow wants Obama to scale back the U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe that Russia has stridently opposed. But any move by the White House to limit those plans would provoke cries of appeasement from Republicans, who will continue to control the House of Representatives.

Obama is pushing to lift Cold-War era trade restrictions that are preventing U.S. companies from enjoying the full benefits of Russia's entry into the WTO. U.S. lawmakers, including many from Obama's party, are tying the removal of restrictions to another bill that would target senior Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses with financial sanctions. The Kremlin has said it would retaliate with economic measures of its own.

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NORTH KOREA

There's little appetite in Washington to haggle with North Korea for possible deals to provide aid in return for a rollback in Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Last year, Obama's sole attempt at negotiating a nuclear freeze with North Korea in exchange for food aid ended in failure when Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket in defiance of U.N. ban. Now, North Korea is hinting that it may withdraw from its 2005 commitments on denuclearization as a prelude to declaring itself a nuclear power, which would bring strong U.S. objections.

Washington could respond by moving to tighten already tough sanctions against the North, but that could likely leave the U.S. at odds with the winner of a December presidential election in key ally South Korea. The next president is expected to adopt a more conciliatory stance toward the North than the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, who has been Obama's staunchest backer in Asia.

The U.S. will continue urging China to use its fraternal relations and economic leverage over North Korea to urge it to disarm, but China will remain reluctant to use too much pressure. Beijing fears a collapse of fledgling leader Kim Jong Un's government and the instability and flood of refugees that could ensue. China also fears the possible emergence of a U.S. ally on its border if the rival Koreas unify.

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CUBA

There are no signs of major breakthroughs in the frosty relationship between Washington and Havana. The U.S. says the island must hold free elections. Cuba demands an end to the 50-year-old economic embargo. Neither side has shown a willingness to budge.

Yet freed from worrying about the voting from swing state Florida's Cuban-American community — where he polled about even with Romney — the president has room to tinker with the sanctions and their enforcement if he's interested in pursuing a thaw with Havana.

Obama could allow more U.S. travel and trade, try to increase diplomatic and law-enforcement cooperation or remove Cuba from Washington's list of state sponsors of terror, a designation that has long irked Havana.

Obama's re-election also means Cuba policy changes he made in the first term will likely remain, such as increased cultural exchanges and eased restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island and sending remittances back home. The latter has become a key source of financing for mushrooming small businesses allowed under President Raul Castro's economic reforms.

Perhaps Washington's top priority on Cuba is winning the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in prison after he imported sensitive communications equipment. Gross and U.S. officials say he was only setting up Internet connections for the island's Jewish community.

Cuba has demanded the return of five Cuban intelligence agents serving long sentences in the United States. Washington rejected that idea.

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CLIMATE CHANGE

Those calling for stronger action on climate change were thrilled that Obama made a reference to the "destructive power of a warming planet" in his victory speech in a reference that clearly included the devastation by superstorm Sandy on the U.S. East Coast. Now comes the hard part: doing something about it.

Many countries are still frustrated by what's seen as a lack of ambition from the U.S. in global efforts to curb greenhouse emissions.

The Bush administration pulled out of a U.N. pact to curb emissions from industrialized countries, saying it was unfair because it didn't include major developing economies such as China

The U.S. hasn't really shifted that stance under Obama, insisting it won't be part of any global climate pact unless it also imposes binding commitments on China, which views global warming as a problem mainly caused by the West.

That issue is likely to remain a stumbling block during Obama's second term. Sweeping climate action, including international commitments, needs approval from Congress, where many Republicans don't accept the mainstream science on global warming.

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Associated Press writers contributing to this report: Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, Lebanon; Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan; Amy Teibel in Jerusalem; Matthew Pennington and Desmond Butler in Washington; Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Sweden; and Peter Orsi in Havana, Cuba.

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