As Obama looks inward, America’s allies worry

Published: 4:54 AM, January 23, 2013
Updated: 11:23 AM, January 23, 2013
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In their second terms, many American Presidents decide to strut the global stage. Mr Richard Nixon had his overture to China. Mr Bill Clinton became obsessed by the Middle East peace process. Mr George W Bush was embroiled in the Middle East war process.

It is clear that Mr Barack Obama intends to be an exception to this rule. In his second inaugural speech on Monday, the President devoted very little time to the outside world. It is clear that he wants his legacy to be domestic. Gun control, immigration reform, fiscal balance, economic recovery — these are his priorities.

The biggest and most dangerous crisis of them all could be building in East Asia — where war talk between Japan and China has grown to dangerous levels in their dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

In foreign affairs, it looks as though Mr Obama’s biggest goal is to be the President who brought the boys back home. He declared firmly that “a decade of war is now ending”. He concluded the conflict in Iraq in his first term, and plans to pull out of Afghanistan in his second.

Mr Obama’s actions speak as loudly as his words. He intervened only reluctantly in Libya, and America’s arm’s-length attitude to the conflict gave birth to the now-famous phrase “leading from behind”. Mr Obama’s decision to nominate Mr Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon suggests that he remains instinctively anti-interventionist.

Mr Hagel opposed the Libyan operation and the Afghan surge — and he has made clear he is highly sceptical about a military strike on Iran. The fact that some see the current mess in Mali as an indirect product of the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi will only strengthen the caution of the Hagelians, who argue that even successful interventions often have dangerous, unforeseen consequences.


The effects of a less interventionist United States could be dramatic for the rest of the world. European leaders, who spent much of the Bush years complaining about American activism are now, ironically enough, worrying about the opposite problem — a US that sits on the sidelines and lets problems fester.

Syria is Exhibit One. America’s reluctance to intervene there is palpable — and, without the US to prompt and support them, the much weaker Europeans are certainly not going to get involved.

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