After a long presidential campaign, Barack Obama has little time to savor his re-election victory as a host of world challenges linger. Security Clearance examines some of the key national security issues Obama will have to tackle in the coming months and what the strategy may be now that the election year politicking is over.
Mideast, Iran and North Africa
On his second day in office in 2009, President Barack Obama appointed former Sen. George Mitchell as an envoy to Mideast peace and pledged to work "actively and aggressively" to secure a final peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Four years later, Israelis and Palestinians are father apart from a deal than at any time in the decades-long peace process. And that effort became more difficult with the election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made countering Iran's nuclear threat his priority, as well as Palestinian infighting and conditions for restarting talks.
But both parties also blame a lack of U.S. leadership on the issue as a major reason negotiations have stalled. As with previous presidents, a second term could inspire bold moves by Obama to bring the parties back to the table.
One of his most pressing challenges will be curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. After months of criticizing the Obama administration for not being tough enough on Iran, the Israeli government is now casting Obama's re-election as good for Israel and for dealing with Iran.
Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in a statement that when it came to the goal of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, "Obama has the teams on the ground, he has international legitimacy against Iran, more than Romney would have had."
Obama's re-election may have bought him more time to find a diplomatic solution and restrain Netanyahu from launching an Israeli strike. Additionally, Iran's leaders are likely to be relieved that Obama won a second term, having viewed him as more moderate. Although Netanyahu's own campaign for re-election could play into how he handles the issue.
The Iranian economy, already showing significant strain under crippling international sanctions, could force the regime to negotiate.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is weakened as a political force as his second and final term comes to an end, but it remains unclear if Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will seize the opportunity for a deal.
As the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi shows, the initial euphoria of the Arab Spring has been replaced by a much more uncertain phase in the region as it undergoes a process of change in which the United States is largely relegated to the sidelines.
The rise of Islamic parties has spread throughout North Africa, prompting fears of increased extremism. Obama will need to engage these new fragile "democracies," while ensuring extremism is not able to flourish.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however presents Obama with a larger set of challenges. Egypt's official MENA news agency said that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy sent a congratulatory letter to Obama in which he said he hoped his reelection would strengthen the "friendship" between their countries. Although the United States accepted Egypt's democratic election, the Obama administration still has concerns about Morsy's own commitments to democracy and his intentions toward Israel.
But perhaps the greatest and most immediate foreign policy crisis Obama must confront in his second term is the civil war in Syria, which threatens to spill into neighboring states. While traveling in Jordan on Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said upon Obama's re-election that Britain and the United States need to make Syria a priority.
"One of the first things I want to talk to Barack about is how we must do more to try and solve this crisis," Cameron said.
Some officials have suggested a second Obama administration might take a muscular approach to the crisis. That could involve support for a "no-fly" zone in northern Syria near the Turkish border, and/or providing more robust support to the opposition, possibly including arms.
Last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out a change, saying the United States will engage more with the opposition inside the country and less with the Syrian National Council (SNC), a group of largely ineffective exiles that Turkey and Qatar have both backed.
"There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," Clinton said.
One of the big differences between Obama and Mitt Romney during the campaign was the space between them on when U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan.
While both agreed on the same timeline, all U.S. forces would be out by the end of 2014, Romney said he would have listened to his commanders on the ground to assess whether there would be a need to keep some forces there beyond the exit date.
Obama has said the 2014 exit date would be final.
As Tuesday’s election buzz wears off, the President will soon be facing one of the first major realities of his decision to end the war in Afghanistan.
Since the last of the US surge troops left Afghanistan in September, Obama’s senior commander there, Gen. John Allen, has undertaken a top to bottom security review inside that country.
The findings from that review, due to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in the coming weeks, will be used by the President to determine at what pace U.S. troops will come out of Afghanistan over the final two years, a weighty decision making process that will surely affect his legacy on how he handled this war.
And as timing would have it, the president will also have to get to know the new commander he nominated to oversee the final phases of the Afghan war. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford is poised to be the commander through the end of 2014.
Military analysts say Dunford will be taking on some hefty challenges, including the continued "insider threat" attacks on troops by Afghan soldiers and insurgents, as well as the continued push to develop the Afghan security forces to a level where they can take over by the end of 2014.
The president faces an array of terrorism threats and lingering terror-related issues going forward.
This includes global al Qaeda affiliates, the challenges of detecting and stopping homegrown terrorists, and dealing with the investigative follow-up and political fallout from the deadly terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
As Republican members of Congress demand answers about security preparedness ahead of the September 11 attack and clarity over what the administration knew as it unfolded, the FBI continues to try and find out who was responsible. Law enforcement also is tasked with collecting evidence that can stand up in court.
Intelligence sources have told CNN that some of those who participated in the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans are believed to have ties to an al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM.
The Salafi-jihadist group has recently expanded its reach in the north of Mali, which concerns U.S. counterterrorism officials, who note that the group utilizes assassinations and suicide bombings as standard business practices.
CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen believes the most pressing threat from the group is targeted more toward western interests in the region, than against targets inside the United States.
"There's no evidence of them having ever tried an attack on the West," Bergen said. "They've been around a long time now, so American or international western targets in North Africa are possibilities for them as is kidnapping western tourists in the area."
Counterterrorism officials also believe that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, based in Yemen, is continuing to plot against Americans. That is in no way expected to slow down in the near future.
The Obama administration expanded its aggressive drone campaign against al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan to its affiliate in Yemen. Some of AQAP's top leaders have been taken out with missile strikes. But there is a lot the United States doesn't know about the group.
For example, did the organization's highly-skilled bomb maker teach others how to manufacture explosives similar to the device that was intended to bring down a U.S. airliner? That plot was disrupted this past May, but the group is believed to be continuing its efforts to attack American interests.
The threat of the so-called "homegrown terrorist" is expected to remain near the top of the list of terrorism concerns among intelligence experts during Obama's second term, even though the threat is often overlooked by the public.
According to Bergen, the fact that some of the terrorists aren't motivated by typical jihadi concepts, doesn't make them any less dangerous.
"They are rarely treated as acts of terrorism," said Bergen. "They are treated as acts of murder, yet slightly more people have been killed by right-wing extremists in this country than by jihadis since 9/11."
Other top concerns on the terrorism agenda that are talked about less-often yet still pressing, include potential bio-terror or nuclear attacks.
For Mitt Romney, China was the ultimate foreign policy bogeyman in the presidential campaign, and its policies attracted some of the harshest rhetorical treatment right up until Election Day.
Chinese officials made clear any attempt to label the country a currency manipulator, as the now-vanquished Republican White House hopeful pledged he would do his first day in office, would further complicate the bilateral relationship.
But with Barack Obama's re-election secured, the relationship between the world's two largest economies is no less complex.
Chinese state media issued its own view of the election on Wednesday, saying Obama's re-election offered an opportunity to improve ties after a first term that many senior Chinese officials viewed as unpredictable.
"There is certainly an exhale with regard to continuity, in that this is the devil that they know," Christopher Johnson, a former longtime China analyst at the CIA told CNN about Chinese reaction to the election. "I would say they are sanguine, but not necessarily energetic or optimistic about the result."
The largest issue looming is the administration's so-called pivot, or re-balancing of resources to Asia following a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The policy is viewed through the prism of containment and a response to China's rise by many in China's senior leadership.
And with China embarking on a once in a decade transition in its top leadership this week, the Obama administration has an opportunity to emphasize different areas of engagement with the country’s presumptive new leader, Xi Jinping.
"We have got to get a functioning trade policy," with China says Johnson, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Right now, we don't have one and the Chinese use it repeatedly to their advantage in the region."
While leadership at the top of the American government will not change, China's relationship with two of its most frequent U.S. contacts will undergo a change in the near future. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs have made it known they intend to step down at the beginning of Obama's second term.
The morning after the U.S. election, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated President Barack Obama. His message wasn’t a surprise: after all, if Mitt Romney had won, Putin would be dealing with a man who called Russia the United States’ top "geopolitical foe."
But that doesn’t mean relations between Putin and Obama will be smooth. With the "reset" fraying, Moscow and Washington still are at odds over how to end the carnage in Syria, and Russia still considers U.S. plans for a European missile defense system a threat.
But, as Obama famously said to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in comments picked up by an open microphone last March, he needed Vladimir Putin to give him some "space" to work out a solution to the missile defense standoff. "This is my last election," Obama said. "After my election, I have more flexibility."
Putin sounds like he wants to follow through on that idea.
Wednesday’s Kremlin statement noted "Mr. Putin particularly stressed the results obtained in developing Russian-U.S. relations over these last years, and expressed his hopes for continued constructive work together on the bilateral agenda and in resolving pressing international and regional issues, noting the key importance that cooperation between countries such as Russia and the USA has for ensuring the world’s stable and secure development."
Just what could Putin and Obama work out?
Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, says Russia and the United States could re-open talks on missile defense on which both countries cooperate.
"Possible technical and practical solutions to the stalmate that could not be put on the table during the U.S. and Russian election campaigns may help to provide a solution," Pickering says. "These could include possible greater clarity about current U.S. plans and a clear exposition of future U.S. plans."
Both countries, he says, also could go beyond the new START arms control agreement and negotiate further cuts in nuclear weapons.
"In both the U.S. and Russia," Pickering says in an article for the Atlantic Council, "experts have begun to look at a new lower limit of 1,000 operational weapons and related delivery vehicles, down from 1,550 under New START."
Both sides, however, want the relationship to be about more than arms control. Trade and investment is one area that could grow, officials say. But Putin’s increasing crackdown on the political opposition is beginning to overshadow improvements.
Military budget cuts
For President Barack Obama, re-election celebrations quickly turned to the hangover of realities in Washington.
Greeting Obama as he returned to the capital with another four years secured was the looming "fiscal cliff" of automatic spending cuts and tax increases due to take effect in January to tame the federal deficit absent a congressional deal to avert it.
About half the $1 trillion in proposed cuts would hit the Pentagon. One key question over the past year has been: How has the Pentagon planned for such a budget hit? The answer: Still waiting for guidance from the White House on how to plan.
The answer, of course, is political. If you plan, then it shows Congress there are real options for spending reductions. If you don't, then Congress can't see what's possible and is more likely to not take action. At least that's the theory.
So, the Pentagon continues to say, as it has for months, that there is no real planning, and expects guidance from the White House in coming weeks on how to prepare. Note: this all comes after the election.
Failure to agree on deficit package would trigger a process of automatic cuts and tax increases called sequestration. Under this scenario, the military budget would be slashed by $500 billion over the next decade.
"We do not want our programs, personnel and activities to begin to suffer the harmful effects of sequestration while there is still a chance it can be avoided," Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in September when ordering Defense Department staff to continue with regular day-to-day planning as is the cuts would not happen.
But Pentagon officials seem confident there would be no layoffs in the military's civilian workforce, if the cuts take effect. A stronger possibility would be furloughs and hiring freezes.
Obama has said automatic cuts will not happen, which sounds like he may have a solution or is betting that Congress would not allow it to happen and risk the ire of millions of voters.
The last time Congress and the White House tried but failed to reach a deficit deal, in August 2011, the gold-plated U.S. credit rating took a direct hit.
It still remains to be seen how all of this will play out in the coming weeks and with a not-so-lame-duck Congress, which remains largely unchanged following the election. High political drama is sure to bring fireworks to what is usually a boring post-election session.
- Mike Mount