17
Dec

President faces uninvented threats from around the world

By Edward Luce

Asked about the fiscal cliff’s impact on foreign perceptions of the US, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton official, quipped: “If Lindsay Lohan were arrested again tomorrow, how much would it change your opinion of her?” The cliff is a domestic crisis of choice rather than of necessity so it is still possible to make light of it. The same cannot be said of Barack Obama’s overseas inbox.

At a moment of acute Washington navel gazing, Mr Obama faces an ominous range of uninvented threats from around the world. Whether 2013 turns out to be the year of Iran, Syria, Egypt, North Korea or Afghanistan, or a mix of the above, they march to their own time. One or two, notably Iran, could be time bombs. Alas, the fracas over Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration as secretary of state last week suggests Mr Obama will be distracted for some time by Washington’s clock – the one that is stuck at 11.59pm.

Mr Obama is this week likely to announce John Kerry as his choice to replace Hillary Clinton. But even the smoothest nomination will not go through the Senate until January. Foreign diplomats chafing at the Do Not Disturb sign hanging outside the White House for much of this year find it is still there six weeks after the election. Even at the price of jettisoning his most trusted foreign policy adviser, Mr Obama is trying to conserve all his leverage for the cliff and beyond. Most importantly, it is swallowing his time.

On Iran, in particular, there is little to waste. Among Washington’s foreign policy luminaries, it is hard to find one who claims to know the Obama administration’s strategy. Some speculate that the White House may have already established a back channel dialogue with Tehran led by someone like Thomas Pickering, the veteran state department envoy. If so, it would be reassuring. But this is a hope rather than an estimate. Others worry that Mr Obama lacks a real strategy to communicate. Read more…

As published in www.ft.com on December 16, 2012.

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