If President Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda for his second term can be measured by the time devoted to the topic in his inaugural address, there is little reason to expect bold action.
The focus of the president’s speech was domestic — a pep talk to a nation still recovering from economic crisis and winding down a war begun by Obama’s predecessor in Afghanistan.
Three short paragraphs were devoted to foreign affairs and national security and their tone was modest compared to 2009.
Four years ago, the new American leader told the Muslim world that the U.S. sought “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” and promised adversaries that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
This time, Obama gave a nod to diplomatic engagement but in a vague manner.
Americans “believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” Obama said. “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
Obama’s main task will be to complete the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and to contain the threat of terrorism by al-Qaeda affiliated groups which have gained in some areas of the Middle East and Africa in the wake of uprisings against secular dictators in the Arab world.
Shortly after Obama spoke on Monday (Jan. 21), State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed the death of three U.S. citizens in Algeria. They were killed in the melee that ensued when Algerian forces attacked terrorists holding foreign hostages at a remote natural gas complex in the desert near the Libyan border. While hundreds of workers escaped, several dozen were killed.
Yet the U.S. has made clear — by its unwillingness to intervene militarily in Mali against Islamic fundamentalists who have seized the north of that country or in Syria’s increasingly bloody and sectarian civil war — that Washington will continue to prefer drones and cyber-attacks to boots on the ground.
In diplomacy, too, the second Obama administration shows little sign of boldness. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expected to win a new term in elections Tuesday (Jan. 22), the chances that the U.S. will push for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks seem dim.
And while Obama is clearly not eager to attack Iran, diplomacy is also in limbo. The U.S. has so far not put forward a proposal encompassing the sort of sanctions relief that could entice the Iranian government into accepting meaningful curbs on its nuclear program. Afraid of another failed meeting following three fruitless encounters last year, the Iranians have yet to agree on a date and place for new talks.
Obama’s priorities this year are to resolve the budget and deficit standoff with Congress and to get new legislation on guns and immigration through Congress.
And while he promised on Monday that “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe” and to support democratic change, that is a far cry from the sweeping committment he put forward in 2009:
“To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born,” Obama said then, “know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.”
Tempered by the disappointments of the past four years, perhaps the president knows that it is better to promise little so as to exceed expectations.
Still, the message to the people of the world this time is that while the U.S. may not be indifferent to their fate, it will focus on its own citizens above all.
Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council where she focuses on Iran. She tweets @BarbaraSlavin1.