There are numerous other issues Obama could address, ranging from Israel to Mexico to Russia. But, in a way, there is no point. Until the United States frees up forces and bandwidth and reduces the dangers in the war zones, it will lack the resources — intellectual and material — to deal with these other countries. It is impossible to be the single global power and focus only on one region, yet it is also impossible to focus on the world while most of the fires are burning in a single region. This, more than any other reason, is why Obama must conclude these conflicts, or at least create a situation where these conflicts exist in the broader context of American interests. There are multiple solutions, all with significant risks. Standing pat is the riskiest.
There is a parallel between Obama’s foreign policy problems and his domestic policy problems. Domestically, Obama is trapped by the financial crisis and the resulting economic problems, particularly unemployment. He cannot deal with other issues until he deals with that one. There are a host of foreign policy issues, including the broader question of the general approach Obama wants to take toward the world. The United States is involved in two wars with an incipient crisis in Iran. Nothing else can be addressed until those wars are dealt with.
The decision to focus on domestic issues makes political sense. It also makes sense in a broader way. Obama does not yet have a coherent strategy stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan. Certainly, he inherited the wars, but they are now his. The Afghan war has no clear endpoint, while the Iraq war does have a clear endpoint — but it is one that is enormously dangerous.
It is unlikely that he will be able to avoid some major foreign policy decisions in the coming year. It is also unlikely that he has a clear path. There are no clear paths, and he is going to have to hack his way to solutions. But the current situation does not easily extend past this year, particularly in Iraq and Iran, and they both require decisions. Presidents prefer not making decisions, and Obama has followed that tradition. Presidents understand that most problems in foreign affairs take care of themselves. But some of the most important ones don’t. The Iraq-Iran issue is, I think, one of those, and given the reduction of U.S. troops in 2011, this is the year decisions will have to be made.