We could be nearing a golden hour in U.S. foreign policy, that rare moment when a newly re-elected president theoretically has the experience and clout to make good things happen. As President Barack Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last March before an unanticipated open microphone, “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
We can think of many places more deserving of presidential flexibility than Russia, which is in such a state of pugnacious isolationism that it will simply pocket any concessions. Instead, Bloomberg View has put together a list of foreign policy challenges that merit the spending of political capital in 2013. Instead of focusing on worthy perennials -- ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty, or rediscovering Latin America (as presidential candidate Mitt Romney astutely suggested) -- we’ve tried to find areas where a sharp course correction is essential and might pay big dividends.
-- Let 2013 be the year that the U.S. starts taking North Korea seriously. A U.S. policy predicated on getting the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons before trying to resolve larger issues -- beginning with a peace treaty for the Korean peninsula, which is still technically at war -- is a nonstarter. Kim Jong Un may not be the sexiest man alive, but he’s not crazy.
-- The administration needs to abandon its reticence about repression in Bahrain, where a ban on demonstrations in October showed a retreat from once-promised reforms. The U.S. should reimpose the cutoff of arms sales to Bahrain that it lifted in May. It should also pursue a report suggesting that Bahrain violated its Fair Trade Agreement with the U.S. by firing 2,700 people who participated in 2011 pro-democracy strikes. The U.S. belongs on the side of the Arab Spring, not the Arab Winter.
-- In Syria, the administration should get off the sidelines and work to consolidate the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad; fund, equip and train rebel forces that sign up to a nonsectarian agenda; and renew efforts to persuade the United Nations Security Council to take action.
-- On Iran, the U.S. should continue to lead the global sanctions effort. Yet it should simultaneously reopen the door to a deal under which Iran complies with International Atomic Energy Agency demands on monitoring, access and information, and halts nuclear fuel production -- with the exception of enriching uranium to the maximum 3.5 percent level that is required to fuel civilian power stations, a level of enrichment that’s a red line for Iran. A fully monitored Iranian low-enrichment program entails risks and may not satisfy the government in Israel. But it has as good a chance of blocking Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon as airstrikes, with fewer risks and unintended consequences.
-- We learned after the presidential election that the Obama administration, planning for a potential loss, had been codifying the U.S. approach to killing terrorists with unmanned drones. Let’s hope electoral victory hasn’t stemmed progress. Obama pushed the drone war into overdrive four years ago, and more than 2,500 people have been killed in about 300 strikes, mostly in Afghanistan and Yemen. Going ahead, we need clear rules on whether the 2001 authorization of the use of force in Afghanistan is a legitimate legal basis for killings taking place 12 years later and as far away as North Africa; how names are added to the “kill list”; whether the Central Intelligence Agency or military should run the program, whether American citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki have greater legal protections than noncitizen targets; and what the criteria should be for deciding on a strike as opposed to capturing the terrorist.
-- In its zeal to prevent another global financial crisis, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has drafted rules to make the derivatives market more transparent. Problem is, the CFTC has moved much more quickly than its global counterparts and risks fomenting regulatory arbitrage, in which it pushes trading away from U.S. markets to countries with more opaque rules. The U.S. needs to work with global regulators on rules that will be comparable enough to prevent market participants from exploiting regulatory gaps.
-- Will the legalization of marijuana by Colorado and Washington force a truce in the U.S. war on drugs? Mexicans and Central Americans, tens of thousands of whom have died in the crossfire, can only hope so. Legalization is actually better for Mexico than creeping decriminalization, which expands the U.S. market for Mexican drugs instead of supplanting it. If the U.S. lets the state laws stand, the larger challenge will be ensuring continued cooperation in the fight against more dangerous drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The U.S. can advance that cause by de-emphasizing shiny helicopters and special drug squads in favor of support for judicial and legal reforms to fight corruption. It can also get rid of the “certification” charade, which conditions U.S. assistance to countries on their willingness to help it with its drug-demand problem.
-- We hope that the 51st year of the U.S. embargo against Cuba will be its last. Obama eased some restrictions in his first term -- and he won half the Cuban-American vote in November. He can now encourage free-market advocates in Cuba by lifting sanctions that even most Cuban-Americans don’t think serve any purpose -- the sooner the better, given the flood of Cuban emigres that new travel freedoms may begin to unleash this month.
-- The U.S. will pursue trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement among 11 nations in Asia and the Americas, along with a possible deal to eliminate barriers with the European Union. Yet such discrete growth-boosting agreements shouldn’t be achieved at the expense of U.S. engagement with the World Trade Organization, which still offers the best framework for easing trade disputes and creating a global system of rules. The first step would be to lead the rest of the world back to negotiations that ended in 2011, after the collapse of the Doha Development Agenda in a dispute between Brazil, India and South Africa on one side, and the U.S. and Western Europe on the other.
-- Earlier in his presidency, Obama rightly calculated that investments in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making would bring few returns, but disengagement has become a dangerous policy as Palestinian supporters of negotiations are losing the argument to militants. To bolster Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate chairman of the strapped Palestinian Authority, the U.S. should press Israel to stop withholding tax revenue it collects on behalf of the authority and to cease its aggressive expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
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