Politico: Don’t look now: Foreign policy cliff looms, too

October 2, 2012

By now it is no secret that the coming fiscal cliff looms large in the nation’s economic future and the presidential election that will help to shape it. What is less obvious is that whoever wins the White House faces a set of cliffhanging foreign policy challenges — a series of tests that will confront him immediately and could bear as much import for the country as its domestic, fiscal twin.

First, America remains at war, though voters would not know it from the scant amount of airtime the decadelong fight has won this campaign season. Up next: a decision on American troop levels in Afghanistan and how and at what velocity troops come home. Will the U.S. stay the course as it has pledged and remain in Afghanistan through 2014, with a continued commitment to support an Afghan-led nation? Or is an entire rethink of strategy needed? The surge now is finished, but how many men and women should remain in its wake remains a question America’s highest commander in the region, Gen. John Allen, is to assess for the president after the election. This cycle, both candidates have been largely mum on the country’s longest war, with Romney failing even to mention American’s battle and its fighting men and women in his convention speech.

But neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney will be able to stay silent indefinitely on the shape and future of America’s involvement in the region. And if Americans continue to die at the hands of Afghan forces they have been sent to train, the pressure on the commander in chief to bring Americans home sooner than 2014 is likely to accelerate.

Then there is the immediately pressing question of Iran. How to proceed in the face of the security threat posed by the country’s nuclear capabilities and Israel’s willingness to go solo to stop it. No discussion on this point was had in person last week in New York, since avoiding gaffes and the face-to-face global discussions that could produce them seems to be first and foremost among the Obama team’s current goals. At this moment, it appears likely that Israel will avoid a unilateral strike between now and Election Day, but what happens afterward remains a question mark — and the red lines Israel sees are now very clear, per Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in New York.

Romney foreign policy adviser Rich Williamson told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that “when Mitt Romney is president, Iran will understand that there is a new sheriff in town and that his position is that the only thing worse than the U.S. using force would be for Iran to have nuclear weapons.” Whether Obama or Romney, the sheriff will undoubtedly be confronted with a tense standoff occupying the region’s attention on a timeline the U.S. does not entirely determine.

And of course, there are the Arab uprisings and America’s relations with the region’s powers. Syria continues to boil, with its citizens suffering grisly deaths at the hands of their own government. International pressure to “do something” is escalating, but what, exactly, that something is remains a question that no one wants to answer. Romney aides have said that they would do more to aid the Syrian anti-government forces, but with the example of Libyan intervention continuing to raise questions and doubts and the American appetite for foreign involvements waning mightily, the next president will face fewer options while feeling more pressure.

Libya and the aftermath of what has now finally been labeled a terrorist attack also beg for the president’s attention. As does the question of why and how American leaders were left with insufficient security and were entirely vulnerable to a rocket-propelled-grenade attack in what was known to be an increasingly volatile area. The Al Qaeda-inflamed Sahel also will influence events in the Maghreb and could play the wild card role in the form of a foreign policy surprise. What will happen in Egypt, the longtime American ally now looking increasingly likely to go its own way, also is unanswered. The attack on the American Embassy in Cairo and protests across the region resulting from the YouTube video laid bare the fragility of the current quiet and the swiftness with which the instant communications era can disintegrate into battle that may begin in the street but will not necessarily end there.

This campaign season, the candidates have remained firmly on domestic terrain in the face of a gasping economy and long-term joblessness. But America’s self-inflicted fiscal straitjacket is, at the least, of its own making. The immediately pressing questions posed by Afghanistan and the Middle East, among other foreign policy issues, do not share that luxury. And they may come calling even faster than America faces a fall off its fiscal cliff.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of The New York Times best-seller “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can find more of her work at https://gaylelemmon.com and on Twitter at @gaylelemmon.