President Obama’s Second Term: Strategic Challenges – Analysis


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

“The logic of what it must do-selective engagement where the national interest is involved, with the least use of military force possible-is obvious. How this emerges and is defined depends on the environment. Dispassionate thought was not possible between 9/11 and today, nor would it be possible if we see the pillars of the international system increasing their unity and power. But that is not what is happening. What is happening is a general decline in power, greater than the decline of the United States. This will frame Obama’s foreign policy choices.”  George Friedman, STRATFOR, 13 November 2012

Introductory Observations

President Obama stands re-elected as the President of the United States and focus necessarily must dwell on the strategic challenges that await him in his second term as President.

The second term of US Presidents historically seem to be devoted to crafting of the legacy that they wish to bequeath to history. In case of the United States as the global superpower which has constantly to safeguard its strategic predominance, presidential legacies normally and logically are sought in the strategic domain.

President Obama having won the Nobel Peace Prize already would be that much freer to resort to assertive postures in the strategic domain in his second term.

The carry-over of salient strategic challenges from President Obama’s first term are Afghanistan, China and the Asia Pacific, and the Middle East turbulence.

Brief perspectives on these strategic challenges and President Obama’s policy inclinations are discussed below.

Afghanistan: Short Term Challenges and Long Term Perspectives

Afghanistan has dominated the two terms of former President Bush and the first term of President Obama. Afghanistan so overwhelmingly loomed over American policy formulations that it resulted in misconceived Pakistan Army-centric strategic formulations. This distorted US policy perspectives in the region.

Mercifully, half-way down President Obama’s first term, it was belatedly realised that Pakistan Army strategic sensitivities needed to be disconnected from US policy formulations on Afghanistan. Continuance of drone operations, liquidation of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan Army’s major garrison town and quest for alternative logistics routes reflect this change.

President Obama’s second term strategic challenges on Afghanistan need to be viewed at two levels-short-term challenges and long-term perspectives.

The short- term strategic challenge for President Obama is to ensure that policy formulations contribute effectively to the undisrupted and scheduled drawback of US Forces from Afghanistan by 2014-end.

The long-term perspectives would incorporate policy formulations that would ensure that Afghanistan emerges as a strong and stable nation capable of ensuring its own security and the positioning of US residual Special Forces and US Air Force deployments in Afghanistan after 2014.

In both cases the dominating imponderable is the Pakistan Army’s propensity for military interference in Afghanistan’s affairs. Sensing President Obama’s penchant for not shirking from hard military decisions, the Pakistan Army would not be tempted for direct military interference or disruptive activities in Afghanistan.

The above does not rule out Pakistan Army achieving its end-objectives by the proxy use of its armed militia protégés and the Taliban.

President Obama would need to draw ‘red lines’ for the Pakistan Army that should it transgress them US military retribution would follow. It also remains to be seen as to how President Obama nudges the Pakistan Army to start the long0delayed military operations in Waziristan against the Haqqani brothers.

In the long- term perspectives, President Obama is likely to further reinforce his commitments on Afghanistan’s security and stability by beefing-up the provisions of the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership.

In the long term perspectives, the United States cannot afford single-handedly to shoulder Afghanistan’s security without shouldering of load by other regional stake-holders in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Iran automatically get ruled out. Russia and China would like to be kept at a distance by the United States until the last resort.

India as the so-called regional power in the Indian Sub-Continent and with legitimate security interests in Afghanistan has demonstrated that it is not ready to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan. That will be the biggest strategic dilemma for President Obama as to how to prevail over India to accept regional security responsibilities.

India’s ambivalence on Afghanistan security responsibilities may prompt the United States to revert to the use of the ‘Pakistan Army Factor’ against India. The growing calls in US think-tank circles for de-militarisation of the Siachin seconded by retired Air Chief Marshals and Generals of the Indian military on US-sponsored Track II jaunts to Lahore recently and elsewhere are a pointer in this direction.

China and the Asia Pacific President Obama’s Magnificent Strategic Obsession

Going by President Obama’s strident call for United States strategic pivot to Asia and the re-balancing of US Forces deployments in the Asia Pacific, a strategic formulation which was essentially China-Contianment in essence, this would continue as President Obama’s magnificent strategic obsession in the second term.

How would this manifest itself? It would manifest itself in many direct and subtle ways, both strategically and politically. The direct manifestations would be in the continued re-balancing of US Forces in the Asia Pacific, the reinforcement of US military alliances in the Asia Pacific and the forging of new strategic partnerships with countries like Vietnam and Myanmar.

The southward tilt in US Forces deployments towards Guam and the incorporation of Australia in the re-deployment of US Forces would be pursued with redoubled vigour. United States has also revived the US-Japan-India Trilateral and the revival of the US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral is only a matter of time.

President Obama’s major strategic dilemma would be as to how the United States position China in its strategic perspectives. United States policy choices would not have been all that complex had it been clear on the US-Russia relationship. The United States is still fuzzy on this relationship weighed down by its Cold War fixations.

Short of that, the United States is forced to adopt a ‘China Hedging Strategy’ which it tries to cover-up with the fig-leaf of ‘Congagement’ which is nothing else but containment of China.

President Obama in his second term therefore is likely to be forced into more of the ‘Containment’ component of the ‘Congagement Strategy and less of the ardour of earlier ‘Engagement’ component.

Loss of China’s dynamic economic growth rates, likely domestic politics turbulence coupled with China’s lack of ‘natural allies’ contributes to lessening of China’s strategic pressure points against the United States.

The resultant situation in President Obama’s second term would be an edgy China strategically and politically hemmed in by US policy formulations.

Stressing for the last couple of years in my papers has been the inevitability of a Cold War between China and the United States. Only this time the US-China Cold War is likely to be more deadly as the confrontations would not be across congealed lines of the Central Europe landmass but for maritime dominance of the contested oceanic expanses in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Middle East Likely to be President Obama’s Strategic Sideshow Despite Turbulence

In my assessment the United States and President Obama would be content to let the Middle East turbulence ‘simmer’ while providing spasmodic escape valves when overheated. For President Obama, the ‘Great Game’ is in Asia Pacific against China and not in the Middle East.

The United States would also be tempted to let intra-regional power tussles between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey carry on as long as US interests in The Gulf are not impinged.

A military confrontation between USA and Iran is unlikely though economic sanctions could be tightened that much more to bring about an economic collapse of Iran. A military solution to deter Iran from going nuclear does not seem to be on the cards. If it was the USA and Israel would have used it long time back.

President Obama would be least inclined to get the United States militarily involved in the Middle East after US military exit from Iraq and drawback of US Forces from Afghanistan. In any case the United States has significantly cut down its energy dependence on the Middle East.

Concluding Observations

President Obama’s main strategic challenge in his second term as US President would be to ensure that the United States retains its political and strategic primacy in the global strategic calculus and thereby defeating the notion held in many quarters that United States power is on the decline.

Towards the attainment of the above strategic aim, the challenge would be posed by China’s global ambitions. In the second half of his first term President Obama displayed that he has leadership qualities to firmly handle China.

In this direction President Obama has an advantage over China in that with his re-election as President, continuity in US strategic formulations is ensured. In China with a new in-coming President, and despite continuity of the Party-line in foreign affairs, it would still take some time for the new Chinese President to settle down.

The main strategic legacy that President Obama would like to bequeath to history is that like in the first Cold War against Russia, he leaves behind a firmly secure Outer Perimeter of US defences in the Western Pacific in the on-setting Second Cold War and a tamed China unable to challenge US strategic primacy in the Pacific.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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