President Barack Obama speaks after a Veteran's Day wreath-laying… (Michael Reynolds / Getty…)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has begun to reassess its foreign policy on a range of challenges, including Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and missile defense, that were viewed as too politically sensitive for any substantial shifts during the presidential campaign.
For months, these issues had what some U.S. officials called "AE" status, meaning any policy changes would be put off until after the election.
But with Obama winning a second term last week, top administration officials say they are weighing whether to deepen U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war, accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, and offer Iran a compromise deal to curb enrichment of uranium.
They also are considering ways to work out new cooperation with China, an undertaking that Obama campaign operatives had feared might alienate swing state voters anxious about Chinese trade policies and competition.
The administration already is taking a new direction on the worsening Syrian conflict, which threatens to spread turmoil as well as refugees across the Middle East. After months of trying to limit the U.S. role, administration officials said they have begun trying to help reshape the civilian-led rebel movement so it can better defend itself against heavily armed military forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
The opposition formed a new umbrella group over the weekend that was officially recognized Monday by six Persian Gulf states as the "legitimate representative" of the rebels.
Since the conflict began early last year, the Obama administration has resisted pressure to deepen collaboration with the opposition, and has refused to supply heavy weapons to its fighters. Advocates of that approach, including some top U.S. officials, argue that unless Washington and its allies strengthen and better organize the insurgents, the administration could see Syria taken over by dangerous militants, or a victory by Assad that would strengthen his Iranian allies.
Before the election, deeper U.S. involvement in Syria "was counter to the administration narrative that it would avoid too much action in the Middle East," said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. But now U.S. policymakers worry that the war "could turn out very badly if we don't change the nature of our role."
Many senior U.S. officials are determined to steer clear of even low-level military involvement or support for the rebels, partly because of the risk that extremists would obtain U.S. weapons. But officials acknowledge the policy is getting another look.
International talks about Iran's disputed nuclear program were effectively suspended last summer by mutual consent. The White House didn't want to appear too conciliatory, and Iranian officials thought they couldn't negotiate an acceptable deal while Obama faced the pressure of an election campaign.
Now both sides are signaling a willingness to talk one-on-one, or as part of the six-nation negotiating group that held three meetings with Iran this year. Negotiations could resume as early as this month.
The talks could raise a controversial proposal that many analysts believe is key to any solution: allowing Iran to conduct low-level uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes, as permitted under international treaty, but with tough international safeguards and monitoring to ensure it doesn't use the program to progress toward a nuclear weapon.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials have spoken favorably of this idea, but the White House barred discussion of it during the campaign.
In Afghanistan, the administration is embroiled in deliberations on whether to front-load the departure of the 68,000 remaining U.S. combat troops. Though the last U.S. troops won't leave until the end of 2014, some administration officials want to start the withdrawal early next year. Some senior military officials are seeking a delay, arguing that they need the full complement for next year's fighting season.
Obama acknowledged early this year that he was in effect suspending some diplomatic efforts because of the political campaign. In March, he told former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in front of an open microphone that he would have more flexibility after the election to negotiate on U.S. plans to base a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
U.S. officials and outside experts aren't offering much hope for an agreement. The proposed system is aimed at protecting Europe from Iranian missiles. But Russia views it as a threat to its entire nuclear deterrent capability and has shown little willingness to compromise.
Obama has a huge incentive to craft a deal because he also wants to persuade Moscow to negotiate further reductions in American and Russian arsenals of nuclear weapons, a major foreign policy objective.
"To cement his legacy, he needs another nuclear reductions agreement," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, a nonprofit advocacy group that seeks to eliminate nuclear weapons. "But if there's no missile defense agreement, he can't get one. It's become the key to further progress."