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Analysis: So now what for Obama?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Source: The Age (South Africa)

When the results of the US presidential election became available on early Wednesday morning South African time, it was clear that Obama had won majorities in the vital swing states, and therefore obtained the 270 votes in the electoral college needed to assure him of four more years in the White House.

Although he will only be inaugurated for his second term on 20 January next year , he has several urgent issues to deal with immediately. Most critical of these is avoidance of the so-called fiscal cliff which, if not dealt with by joint legislative action before their termination date of 31 December, would mean the end of a number of existing tax cuts, as well as automatic cuts in budgets for defence and other government services. It is also essential to raise the government’s debt limit to meet ongoing obligations. Inaction for party political reasons would only throw America into more financial turmoil and depression.

It is therefore no surprise that Obama struck a very conciliatory note in his victory speech just after midnight in Chicago, the capital of his home state of Illinois, on Wednesday. Among other things, Obama spoke of meeting with Romney, his defeated Republican rival, to discuss matters of national concern.

Nevertheless, commentators in the US are not sanguine about the prospects for the Republicans and the Democrats in Congress reaching an agreement on what to do.

A raft of international issues also await Obama’s attention. As usual, many of these revolve around the Middle East.

Iran has indicated a willingness to re-open discussions with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany about its nuclear programme.

There could be no action on taking up that offer until it was clear who would be in the White House from next year, and also until the new Chinese leadership was selected at the meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing yesterday. That new leadership will only take office in March next year.

A major element in dealing with the Iran issue is Israel, a long-time US ally. The political leadership in Israel makes bellicose noises about attacking Iran, in spite of warnings by its military hierarchy against such a course. The fact that Israel is itself in election mode means that harsh political rhetoric from the right wing party and allies of Benjamin Netanyahu is to be expected.

But there are wider issues in the Middle East. As a result of the Arab Spring, many of the secular autocrats that ran Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and others have disappeared and been replaced by democratically elected Islamist governments. The US has to ensure it develops sound relations with the new leaders, after its alliances with the previous rulers collapsed.

Syria will remain a headache for some time, as no-one knows how to bring the complex religious, ethnic and social problems to a resolution, given that there is no appetite for foreign military intervention. Russia insists on negotiations, but unless the leaders of the various factions are prepared to go to the negotiating table to seek solutions in good faith, this is just as unlikely to succeed as the various plans proposed by Kofi Annan and ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi. And the US has no stomach – or budget – for becoming involved in another Middle East conflict, at the very time that Obama is trying to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan.

A new focus area of US foreign policy is the emergence of China as a rival power in the Pacific region. While China is a vital trading partner for the Americans, its new leadership has to be tested. Will it move towards greater reform, or stand pat? Relationships will need to be strengthened with the new leaders before decisions are taken on both sides, as personal knowledge and relations of trust are vital in the conduct of diplomacy.

These many domestic and global responsibilities of the world’s only remaining super power means that sub-Saharan Africa is likely to continue to enjoy a relatively low level of priority on the US scale.

The value to Africa of US engagement on this continent are, nevertheless, not to be sneezed at.

Existing development assistance programmes in the areas of healthcare and promotion of democratic values are likely to continue.

Of critical importance to Africa’s economic health and development is extension of the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which created a unilateral American programme that allows products from African countries to enter the US free of customs duty. Many countries, like Lesotho, benefit from the terms of this legislation. Motor vehicles, South Africa’s most significant industrial export at present, are also able to enter the US duty-free under Agoa. The law is due to expire in 2015 and it is vital for Africa that the US Congress adopt an extension.

Less well known is the extent of US military assistance to Africa. The misguidedly controversial US Africa Command, Africom, based in Stuttgart, Germany, acts as an administrative conduit for on-the-ground US support against insurgencies in east Africa, as well as training and various other forms of assistance to African military forces. Even less visible is cooperation in the form of exchange of intelligence between the relevant agencies in Africa and the US on terrorism and other international criminal activity.

But Obama will have to appoint a new Secretary of State, as Hillary Clinton, who visited Africa on numerous occasions and developed warm relations with her South African counterpart, has made it known that she will not continue in that role in Obama’s second term. It remains to be seen then what emphasis her successor will place on developing and sustaining US relations with Africa.

If President Zuma’s warm congratulatory message to Obama on Wednesday is anything to go by, South Africa values sound relations with the US, in contrast to the chill that developed during the Mbeki-Bush presidencies.

All that said, some of the high expectations for extra benefit to Africa with the first election of Obama, a man with an African father, have resurged with his re-election. This is not realistic.

The responsibility of the US president is first and foremost to care for the interests of American citizens. Although through the vagaries of the complex electoral college system he had a resounding victory over Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s election, the tally of individual votes for Obama clearly showed he had received the support of barely half of American voters. In addition, his Republican adversaries continue to hold the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the American Congress.

This means Obama will face titanic battles to have his legislative programmes adopted. Between these domestic issues and his other global responsibilities, Africa should be realistic about what Obama can do for Africa.

Tom Wheeler is a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, who spent eight years in the US during his career in the Department of Foreign Affairs.