Barack Obama expected to take few risks in final year

As Barack Obama prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address tomorrow night, the US President and his aides have insisted he will not be content simply to run out the clock on foreign policy and is acting decisively to tackle crises piling up around the globe.

But former US officials and experts familiar with the White House’s thinking say he appears locked into policies aimed more at containing such threats and avoiding deeper US military engagement in the last year of his presidency.

This, they say, all but guarantees that the toughest geopolitical challenges will be inherited by Obama’s successor.

That will likely give fuel to Republican presidential candidates who are eager to use Obama’s foreign policy woes to attack, by extension, Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton, who served as his first-term Secretary of State.

Islamic State has extended its deadly reach across the Middle East and beyond, with recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, carried out or inspired by the jihadist group.

North Korea stunned the world last week with its fourth rogue nuclear test. Taliban insurgents are gaining ground in Afghanistan. Beijing continues to flex its muscle with its neighbours.

Russia remains undeterred in Ukraine’s separatist conflict and has challenged US influence in the Middle East with its military intervention in Syria’s civil war, a conflict that Obama’s critics have seized on as evidence of a rudderless foreign policy.

Most outside analysts agree with administration officials’ insistence that much of the global tumult is driven by forces beyond Obama’s control.

But experts also give credence to criticism that Obama’s crisis response has often been hesitant and that policy missteps have either fuelled conflict — or done little to curb it — in places like Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.

“This is a risk-averse president who sets red lines he doesn’t enforce,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations.

For the coming year, Obama has left the door open to using executive powers to fulfill his early pledge to close the Guantanamo military prison, and could also act on his own to further loosen the half-century-old economic embargo on Cuba. Time will tell.

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