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Election over, Obama inbox overflows with world crises

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters, file

President Barack Obama meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York in September 2011. Netanyahu argues that sanctions on Iran will not halt its nuclear program -- one of many points of discord between Obama and Netanyahu.

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LONDON — The bunting’s down, the confetti swept away. The U.S. elections are over and President Barack Obama, the winner of four more years in power, can now cast an eye beyond the water’s edge — to those thorny international problems that were bad enough before the vote and have only festered since then.

On the top of Obama’s in-tray: Syria. The civil war there is relentless. Opposition sources say at least 38,000 people have been killed. Syrian leader Bashar Assad pledges he will live and die in Syria. Only a puppet, he says, would step down or flee his nation for exile.


Every effort by the United Nations to end the fighting has been stymied by Russia and China vetoes. It is no wonder that, hours after Obama’s re-election, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the crisis in Syria would be one of the first topics they would discuss.

The whole world was watching as America chose its president, and the general sentiment appeared to be a sigh of relief. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Collective pressure has not worked and, with the need to appeal to his liberal, Democratic base now removed in a second term, Obama may harden his stance and agree to arm the Syrian rebels under certain conditions.

As one British official told Reuters on Thursday: "We want to put everything (back) on the table."

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That could mean forming, along with Cameron and other allies, a Libya-style military response which, in turn, might include air strikes and a no-fly zone.

Cameron summed up the dire situation in remarks released in London on Thursday.

In an interview with a Russian television channel, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to live and die in Syria, amid the 19-month old uprising against him. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

"Look, let’s be frank. What we’ve done over the past 18 months hasn’t been enough," he said.

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Still, enforcing a no-fly zone without a U.N. mandate would be fraught with problems. Expect to see Obama finding a way to arm some rebels if they get their house in order and unite around principles the United States can support.

Ali Jarekji / Reuters

Britaish Prime Minister David Cameron, fourth from left, walks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, sixth from left, and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative to Jordan Andrew Harper at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, on Wednesday.

Ticking time bomb?
Iran is next on Obama’s to-fix list. Can anyone forget Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ticking bomb whiteboard presentation at the U.N. General Assembly? With the sweep of a red Sharpie, Netanyahu claimed that Iran will have enough enriched uranium to make a bomb by early 2013.

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U.S. intelligence believes Iran will not have a weapon before 2014, and in his first term Obama has opted to use that time to allow tough sanctions to bite.

But Netanyahu argues that sanctions will not work, and that the Iranians can speed up the bomb-making process — it is one of many points of discord between Obama and Netanyahu, raising U.S.-Israeli tensions. 

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My colleague, Martin Fletcher, writes that many Israelis fear Obama — again, with his re-election pressures gone — may now try to negotiate a deal directly with Tehran that could leave Israel exposed.

Or Obama may stay the course in his second term, continuing to apply pressure through sanctions, while neither flashing Israel a green or red light to strike Iran. But Obama’s reluctance to get involved militarily in Iran is unlikely to change.

In an attempt to convey what he sees as a threat to Israel's existence, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a cartoon to illustrate how close he says Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon. In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly he asked the world to help stop them. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

'Sleeping bear'
It is difficult to mention Syria and Iran without turning to Russia. The "sleeping bear" which, led by the mercurial Vladimir Putin, seems to counter American diplomatic efforts at every turn. 

When asked what are the three top issues facing U.S.-Russian relations, Michael McFaul, the American ambassador in Moscow, ticks them off without missing a beat are: Syria, Iran and missile defense.

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The latter is a red line for Russia. The placing of a NATO anti-missile defense shield — Washington says to stop missiles fired from Iran — near Russia’s border with Europe. But there is some cause for hope that, in his final term in office, Obama will find the "space" to compromise.

In March, Obama was caught by a live microphone saying as much to then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (this later became a talking point for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who said: "When the president of the United States is speaking with the leader of Russia, saying he can be more flexible after the election, that is an alarming and troubling development.")

But it remains difficult to know how concretely Obama can compromise. A Republican-led House of Representatives will oppose any Obama administration attempt to offer classified information about the missile shield to placate the Russians.

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There is talk of Obama putting on a charm offensive in his second term. McFaul told Russian radio this week that Obama would like to visit Russia soon — but so far, since the "resetting" of the button in U.S.-Russian relations, Obama has watched Putin crack down on pro-democracy protesters and attack symbols of American values, like shutting down USAID and Radio Liberty inside Russia. 

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Instead, Obama could choose in a second term to focus more on what are perhaps easier issues, like adoptions and visas.

"The next phase ... has to do with a hundred small things," McFaul told the Moscow Times. "And it’s hard to keep our governments focused on a hundred small things." But the big things may remain too big to handle.

Russia will be at the top of the foreign policy agenda for whoever is in the White House. Ordinary Russians give their view of the election to NBC News in Moscow.

China issues go beyond trade
There are — of course — many other issues in Obama’s inbox waiting for his attention: tensions with China, for instance, go beyond issues of trade.

On Thursday, as China marked its once-in-a-decade transition to new leadership, a U.S. government report said the emerging super-power is just two years away from deploying submarine-launched nuclear weapons, adding a sea leg to its nuclear arsenal of at least 240 nuclear bombs.

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The worry is that China is the only original nuclear weapons state that is expanding its nuclear force. 

But what to do about China is just one of many dilemmas for Obama.

He also needs to decide how to stop the spread of al-Qaida in the Middle East and Africa, whether to continue to use drones to strike terrorist targets, how to deal with the new governments emerging from the Arab Spring, and how he will approach the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

24 hours after President Barack Obama was re-elected to the White House, the world's other major power, China, began the very different process of choosing its new leader. It happens once every ten years, and lasts just a week. And in case there was any doubt, the ruling Communist Party began by pledging never to have Western democracy. NBC's Angus Walker reports.

And — in Afghanistan — Obama faces a decision as to whether to end the war there in 2014, or, as some military commanders have hinted, part company with his anti-war political "base" and keep some 15-20,000 U.S. troops in country for years to come.

Cleary, Obama’s in-tray is full of challenges, and a four-year term is awfully short. But at least the distractions of his re-election are behind him. Obama can now look forward.  As he likes to say, "there’s a lot of work to do." 

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