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.