Vahid Salemi, File, Associated Press
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Phrases to describe some of the looming foreign policy challenges for President Barack Obama didn't even exist when he took the oath of office the first time: the Arab Spring, the Fordo Facility housing Iran's underground uranium enrichment labs, the stealth power of new viruses bearing names such as Stuxnet and Flame in the shadow world of cyber-sabotage.
But that also doesn't mean the list of earlier conflicts, stalemates and crises — inherited by Obama in his first term and, in some cases, reaching back decades — is any shorter for the White House.
The global financial downturn hangs on stubbornly in a 21st century matrix that binds, to varying degrees, all major economies into a shared economic destiny. The U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is winding down as the Iraq mission before it, but U.S. policymakers face perhaps even more complex diplomacy and deal-making ahead in Kabul. Meanwhile, other flashpoints linked to al-Qaida and Islamist extremists such as Mali and Nigeria could rise on the U.S. agenda. And, as always, showdowns that span generations — including Cuba and the Israel-Palestinian impasse — hold a spot on Washington's radar.
In an increasingly interconnected and politically complex world, Obama's next term may test America's evolving — and perhaps more nuanced — roles as a superpower confident in its military strength yet trying to reclaim its "soft power" status of nimble diplomacy and building coalitions.
"We want to pass on a country that's safe and respected and admired around the world," Obama said in his victory speech Tuesday, "a nation that is defended by the strongest military on Earth ... but also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being."
The only real foreign policy sure bet is that America's current top diplomat will change. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced plans to retire but could stay a few weeks into the new year. Her successor — like many for decades — will take on a portfolio heavily weighted toward the Middle East.
Obama has stood by the policy that sanctions and diplomacy are the best course to leverage possible concessions from Iran on its nuclear program, which the West and others fear could eventually lead to atomic weapons. Iran says it seeks reactors for energy and medical research only.
The next major crossroads for the White House could be whether to consider any changes in its negotiating tactics with Tehran after three rounds of failed talks this year between envoys from Iran and world powers. Iranian officials have suggested they would consider scaling back on uranium enrichment — the centerpiece of the stand-off with the West — if some of the economic pressures were eased.
So far, Obama and Western allies have shown no willingness to roll back sanctions as part of a step-by-step process proposed by the Iranians. But Washington has said it would be open to groundbreaking direct talks with Tehran if there were a real chance of nuclear compromises, but that military options remain on the table.
Iran has countered with threats of hardening positions — possibly a reflection of growing unease as sanctions cut into critical oil sales and drive the Iranian currency to record lows. Iranian officials warn they could start boosting uranium enrichment above current top levels unless the West is ready to negotiate on sanctions.
Iran claims the U.S., Israel and allies were responsible for computer viruses such as Stuxnet that caused malfunctions in centrifuges used to enrich uranium.
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