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Le Figaro, France

Barack Obama Caught up
in the World’s Crises

By Laure Mandeville

Translated By Lindsey Cambridge

12 February 2013

Edited by Drue Fergison

France - Le Figaro - Original Article (French)

The North Korean bomb and the withdrawal of 34,000 soldiers from Afghanistan appeared in the State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

While carrying out a new nuclear test some hours before the State of the Union speech that took place Tuesday night at 9 p.m. (3 a.m. in France), the North Koreans revealed to what extent the priorities of Barack Obama’s second term could be disrupted by international crises.

The head of state had initially devoted only a small part of his speech, annually presented before the two chambers of Congress as a list of priority issues, to foreign policy. The high point in this area had been the announcement of the removal of half of the American contingent in Afghanistan between now and the end of 2013 (from 68,000 to 34,000 soldiers) with a view toward total removal by the end of 2014.

We expected the president to focus especially on economic issues, notably on the best way to stimulate job growth while attacking the debt ceiling, through long- and short-term negotiations with Republicans on social welfare and the military budget. In the aftermath of the inauguration speech on Jan. 21, experts predicted that priority would also be given to climate change and to the necessity of facing this challenge by counting on green energy. Immigration and gun control, identified as an important issue after the Newtown massacre in Connecticut, were also emphasized.

Putting Conservatives Under Pressure

Contrary to tradition, where the president uses his second term primarily to assert himself on the world stage, Obama seems to have decided, despite the division of Congress and the major obstacle that having a Republican majority in the House of Representatives presents, to draw up an ambitious and very aggressive framework for reforms in order to put conservatives under pressure and to take advantage of the identity crisis that they are experiencing. In short, he seems now, more than ever, faithful to his belief that America really must take care of itself and put itself back together if it wants to maintain its role as an international leader. It was an approach illustrated by the president’s repeated declarations about the end of a “decade of war” and the removal of troops from Afghanistan.

But Tuesday, commentators expected some last-minute modifications in response to the worrying actions by North Korea. The North Korean affair does not bode well for Barack Obama, who had also planned to announce last night new reductions in the country’s nuclear arsenal in accordance with the disarmament agreement negotiated with the Russians during his first term. The White House has been emphasizing non-stop for four years that the major nuclear countries should set an example if they want to combat proliferation and convince countries like Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear military programs.

Internal Priorities

But if the North Koreans have truly succeeded in miniaturizing a bomb capable of traveling as far as America’s coastline, the resistance to all unilateral disarmament, already very strong in Congress, should grow. Even though the United States is supposed to begin a reduction of its military spending and the new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, supports nuclear arms cuts, it emphasizes “nuclear nonproliferation to a degree that the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence could be weakened (at least when viewed by allies like Japan or Korea),” predicts Carnegie expert James Schoff.

The questions ought to get more insistent from America's ally, Israel — which is currently receiving a visit from the acting Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller — considering that Iranian nuclear power and the connections between Tehran and North Korea represent a time bomb.

In this dangerous and unpredictable international context, which internal priorities remain on the agenda to be addressed by Obama Tuesday night? As noted recently by foreign policy specialist Robert Kagan at Le Figaro, American presidents have often been caught up in the world’s crises while they were looking to avoid them. The current Democratic administration may well want to implement a “light footprint” on foreign politics, but it could find itself trapped once again by America’s status as the “indispensable nation.”



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