“The increasing intrusion of economics into the world of foreign policy may be seen on issues as diverse as the visit to Washington by German Chancellor Merkel, NATO and Afghanistan. During the former, the bulk of the White House discussions focused on the financial crisis in the Eurozone and its possible impact on the US economy; on the latter, the cost of the continuing US engagement is weighing more heavily than usual in the debate about the pace of withdrawal.
The reason is not hard to find. At a time when high officials like the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank acknowledge ‘slower than expected’ economic growth, President Obama’s re-election prospects diminish. While he remains favored to win in 2012 and some of his potential Republican challengers are in disarray, recent polling makes uncomfortable reading for him. With the jobs and housing markets still in the doldrums, Obama is politically vulnerable to the charge that his economic policies are not working.
There is still no solution in sight on the debt limit that is due to expire on August 2nd. In practical terms, this means that the prospect for sustained presidential engagement in foreign policy, for example in a mooted new Middle East peace initiative or in action against Syria, is minimal. Similarly, the White House’s backing for controversial operations such as Libya – where Obama faces rising Congressional opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike – will be soft.
This ambivalence underlies the debate about the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan. One option being put to Obama is to increase significantly the number of troops to leave over the summer. Although conservative commentators are sounding the alarm on this front, Administration officials tell us privately that there will be no precipitate withdrawal. They acknowledge, however, that Obama has little personal belief that the outcome in Afghanistan will be a good one.
Looking ahead, US concern over North Korea – on which we commented earlier – is far from abating. State Department and Intelligence Community officials are in touch with their South Korean and Japanese counterparts in advance of possible North Korean provocation over the summer.
Another longer-term issue is the relationship with Saudi Arabia on which the US posture in the Middle East is grounded. US officials tell us that they discern shifts in Saudi attitudes which, while incremental, may presage less harmonious relations than in the past.”