Obama's Christmas Wish List and New Year’s Resolutions

By Stephen Saideman


Being re-elected President of the United States was a pretty nice gift, but what else could President Obama want for Christmas?  What would I like to see him promise to do more or less of in the New Year? 

If I were Obama, the first thing I would ask for would be a foreign policy team as strong as his first one.  Hilary Clinton will be tough to replace, and Leon Panetta is not as strong in a time of defense budget cuts as Robert Gates could have been.  Already, there has been much discussion about this, with Susan Rice dropping out and Chuck Hagel under fire.  The risk of appointing Kerry is more about losing the Senate seat he occupies.  Thus far, there has been far less speculation about the Department of Defense.  A great but most unlikely gift would be a Republican Party with a bit of a learning curve.  Sure, the Democrats would be better off in 2014 and 2016 with the Republicans of today as their opponents, but Obama is done with re-elections and would like to get some stuff done.  A reasonable Republican Party would be an amazing gift.

If Santa were super-generous, Obama could wish for a bit more peace in the Mideast, starting with a a magical solution to the Syrian civil war.  The Middle East is the Land Of Lousy Alternatives for American foreign policy.  Syria presents a tremendous challenge, given that the US public is exhausted by a decade of war, that the Syrian opposition is hardly united and includes many folks the US would rather not arm, that Russia and China have very conflicting preferences, and so on.  Perhaps Assad will fall off a horse.  A more likely but still not quite probable gift would be a multilateral deal with Iran. The sanctions are biting hard, but Obama would want a deal negotiated by the coalition representing the international community.  Unfortunately, Obama cannot return the earliest gift—more violence between Israel and Hamas. This is exactly what he didn’t want for Thanksgiving or Christmas or anytime.

Of course, as the Beatles suggested, the love you take is equal to the love you make.  So, Obama is probably shopping right now for a chill pill for China.  The rising power has been testing and pushing its neighbors.  A less assertive, more cooperative China would be a gift to the entire region.  Perhaps Obama will give Vladimir Putin a new exercise machine for his abs, so that Russia focuses on building inward strength rather than serving as a spoiler.  On the other hand, both countries’ reluctance to allow NATO the freedom to do in Syria what it did in Libya is probably a gift to Obama, who would prefer to avoid yet another intervention in the wider region. 

The winter season is not just for gift giving and receiving, but also making resolutions to do better in the New Year.  So, what should Obama resolve to do or not do, besides giving up smoking?  He should definitely try to keep the US at or under the number of wars it is currently fighting.  He should resolve to rely less on drones as a hammer for every foreign policy problem.  He should try to advocate less on austerity as a solution for everyone’s economic problems.

I think the most important resolution for the American public would be to make counter-terrorism less extraordinary.  A war on terrorism, as the truism goes, means fighting a technique and it can never be won.  Instead, declare that some objectives have been reached and try to return to normalcy plus—not exactly how the US operated in 1999 or 2000 but how it should have been acting in a world where terrorism exists but causes far less damage than economic crises, climate change, domestic gun crimes, and all the rest.

Partly as a consequence of the “ending of the war on terrorism,” the US could pivot not just towards Asia and the Pacific but away from the Middle East.  Hard to do, but South America, Africa, Southeast Asia have promises and challenges of their own and some assistance could make a difference.  Again, the Middle East is the land of bad policy choices, and it is no fun to keep having to figure out which option is the least bad one.  Not that these other places are perfect, but they have been on the back, back burner for too long. 

Obama should resolve to focus on Mexico as the most important foreign policy priority.  The US has bet hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives on far distant failed states. How about the very violent country next door for which the US bears considerable responsibility, with its thirst for drugs and its excess of guns?

The question is always raised during an election: who would want this job, that comes with such baggage?  The US Presidency is a very tough role, with the greatest latitude in foreign policy.  Obama’s first post-election trip to Burma, Cambodia and Thailand was promising, but the crises du jour will drag his attention back to the usual suspects.


About the Author: Stephen Saideman holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), Carleton University. His publications include three books: The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and Intra-State Conflict, Governments and Security (with Marie-Joelle Zahar). He spent 2001-2002 on the U.S. Joint Staff working in the Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate as part of a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship.


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