Opinion

Thinking Global

Obama’s Afghan test

Feb 1, 2013 20:35 UTC

Munich – For America’s friends and allies, who will welcome Vice President Joe Biden to the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend, President Obama’s second inaugural address was notable for its single-minded focus on U.S. domestic issues even as global challenges proliferate. It was the clearest sign yet that Obama intends to build his historic legacy at home.

No one quibbles with Obama’s conviction that America’s global role can best be sustained through a period of “nation-building at home.” The problem is the world is unlikely to hit the pause button as America gets itself off the fiscal cliff, reforms its immigration system, modernizes its infrastructure, fixes its education system and focuses on other long-neglected home chores.

Rude reality inevitably intrudes.

Even if Washington weren’t facing a world of escalating trouble spots – Syria, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, North Africa, and the disputed waters around China (for starters) – U.S. allies would be looking to Afghanistan as the leading indicator of how Obama 2.0 will balance domestic priorities against his global commitments.

With 50 countries still providing 102,052 troops in Afghanistan, how Obama manages his accelerated withdrawal of 66,000 forces by 2014 – and negotiates the mission and size of the residual force due to remain – is of more than academic interest. One senior diplomat of an allied country, who recently returned from a long stay in Afghanistan, worries that Obama administration officials are so focused on getting troops out that they haven’t fully studied the dramatically changed context for the few thousand left behind to look after what remains the world’s most dangerous region.

The Afghanistan debate is still conducted through a rear-view mirror, focusing either on wasted U.S. resources or unappreciated blood sacrifices. Zero Dark Thirty is in theaters, glorifying the killing of “Geronimo,” Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan, through a Navy Seal mission that was launched from eastern Afghanistan. Yet a glance at the road ahead suggests a new debate about the shifting context for allied engagement is urgently required.

How NATO can revitalize its role

May 16, 2012 19:52 UTC

White House reporters can be forgiven their collective shrug when they received the readout from President Obama’s meeting last week with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in advance of the alliance’s Chicago summit this weekend. Laced with the usual, mind-numbing NATO-speak, the dry listing of the summit’s three areas of focus – Afghanistan, defense capabilities, and partnerships – didn’t sound like the stuff of history.

However, beneath the third agenda item – partnerships – lies a potential revolution in how the world’s most important security alliance may operate globally in the future beside other regional organizations – and at the request of the United Nations. At a time of euro zone crisis, U.S. political polarization and global uncertainty, it provides a possible road map for “enlarging the West” and its community of common values and purpose. “NATO is now a hub for a global network of security partners which have served alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo,” Obama and Rasmussen agreed.

As America’s willingness and capability to act unilaterally declines, any U.S. president will find himself increasingly drawn to NATO as an even more vital tool for foreign and defense policy – against a host of global threats ranging from Syrian upheavals and North Korean nuclear weapons to cyber attacks and piracy. The problem, however, is that NATO members more often than not won’t be located where they are most needed. Or due to lack of political will or inadequate military muscle, many NATO members may not have the capability to intervene. That means regional partners will be increasingly necessary to provide both the credibility and resources for the most likely future operations.

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