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Updated Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 10:57 AM

Obama has backlog of foreign-policy issues

By MARK LANDLER
The New York Times

For all the talk of a "fiscal cliff" threatening the nation's finances, President Obama also faces a foreign policy cliff of sorts, with a welter of national-security issues that he put on the back burner during the campaign now clamoring for his attention.

Atop that list, administration officials and foreign policy experts say, is the bloody civil war in Syria and the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program.

The United States is likely to engage the Iranian government in direct negotiations over the next few months, in perhaps a last-ditch diplomatic effort to head off a military strike on its nuclear facilities.

Syria will demand a pressing response, given the high human toll of the violence and the danger of a spreading regional conflict. Obama, however, remains leery of being dragged into the conflict, rejecting calls to supply weapons to rebel groups. His reluctance has been partly political, experts say, but he also has strategic qualms.

"At a time when he was running on a platform of ending wars in the Middle East, he did not want to be seen as starting one," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

"But if he doesn't try to intervene in a way that gives him a way to shape a post-Assad regime on the ground," Indyk continued, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad, "there's a high risk of descent into chaos in Syria, and a sectarian war that spreads to Lebanon, Bahrain and eventually Saudi Arabia."

Beyond those flash points, the president will have to grapple with Pakistan, an unstable nuclear state and oversee an orderly exit from Afghanistan, where the waning U.S. role threatens to throw the country back into chaos and Islamic militancy.

As he does so, some question whether he will rethink his administration's heavy reliance on drone strikes to kill people suspected of being extremists, a policy that has proved lethally efficient but has sown deep resentment in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

More broadly, Obama will face Russia under the aggressive leadership of President Vladimir Putin and China with the opposite problem — negotiating a tumultuous change in power after a scandal that tainted the top ranks of its Communist leadership.

Russia on Wednesday welcomed Obama's re-election, expressing relief at the defeat of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who declared during the campaign that Russia is the top rival to U.S. interests.

There is also some unfinished business from the past four years, not least Obama's frustrated efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But several experts cast doubt on whether the president would throw himself into the role of Middle East peacemaker, as President Clinton did in his second term.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appeared to cultivate Romney and has had a fraught relationship with Obama, faces his own voters early next year, but he seems likely to stay in power with a right-wing government. Such an arrangement could make peacemaking difficult.

The added wrinkle for the U.S.: The Palestinian Authority is likely to petition for nonstate membership in the United Nations next month, a step it had put off until after the election. If the U.N. were to grant it, that would trigger Congress to cut off aid not only to the Palestinian Authority but also to the U.N. itself.


CAROLYN KASTER / AP
In this Feb. 23, 2011 photo, President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at right, speaks about Libya in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington.




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