As 2012 closes, it's time for my second annual review of the top U.S. foreign policy stories of the year. With some notable exceptions late in the year, 2012 seemed like more of the same. The Syrian civil war continued, the world continued to worry over Iran's nuclear potential, and the Palestinian Authority continued to press for symbolic statehood within the United Nations.
That said, here is a look at the top foreign policy events of 2012. (Before you scroll down, you probably can guess Number 1.)
5. Clinton Helps Broker Gaza Cease Fire
For eight days in November, Israel and Hamas -- the Gaza-based Palestinian group -- traded gunfire and rockets in a clash that underscored Palestinians' continued quest for Middle East statehood. The fighting also showed the rift that has grown between Palestinian groups Hamas and the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank region (as well as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas' weakened leadership).
Hamas is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Egypt's recently elected president Mohamed Morsi is a member. Thus, Morsi was key to crafting a cease fire in the conflict.
But so was the United States. Breaking off a visit to Burma and Southeast Asia with President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to the Middle East to talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Morsi and his advisors. When the cease fire came, Clinton announced it along with Egyptian authorities.
Some Western observers thought American influence to be declining in the Middle East in the wake of Arab Spring, which ushered in newly elected governments, like Morsi's, not compliant to U.S. policies. Clinton's presence showed, however, that the U.S. could work beyond the old Cold War-alliance systems to achieve an outcome. (It also remained committed to Israel when it voted against a Palestinian bid for U.N. statehood that resulted from the Gaza fight.)
A week later, when Morsi fomented an Egyptian constitutional crisis in a blatant internal power grab, the U.S. showed that it was still a stable force in the Middle East with the gravitas to be an effective influence.
4. U.S. Opens Relations With Burma (Myanmar)
In 2011, with the election of former pro-democratic dissident Aung San Soo Kyi to Parliament of Burma (Myanmar) and a government open to democratic reforms, Obama and his administration began to see new opportunities for the U.S. in the region.
In 2012 the U.S. formally renewed diplomatic relations with Burma, which it had discontinued more than fifty years ago after a strongman government took over the country. That is part of what many (myself and others) have called Obama's Pacific pivot -- that is, a renewed emphasis on Asia Pacific matters after more than a decade of preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan. (Not that the U.S. will now ignore those places, as the Pentagon has stressed.)
The move makes sense. China long sponsored Burma, but Burma has recently been chaffing under Chinese dominance. Situated between the burgeoning economies of China and India, Burma is a perfect place for the U.S. to reassert in the Asia Pacific.
3. U.S. Recognizes Syrian Opposition Council
The Syrian civil war will soon hit its two-year mark, and deaths in the opposition fight against tyrant president Bashar Al-Assad have passed 45,000. While Russian friendship with Syria precludes any U.S./NATO intervention in Syria such as in Libya, the U.S. has nevertheless been working to undermine Assad and help the opposition.
In December, the U.S. recognized the Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) as the legitimate government in Syria. That came after the State Department had worked most of the year to ensure that the "opposition" defined elements both within and without Syria, not just a select few monied Syrian expatriates living outside the country.
The American diplomatic recognition gives the SOC the legitimacy to carry on the fight. While the U.S. is not supplying the opposition with arms, the recognition allows more pinpointed diplomatic help and civilian relief.
2. Ambassador Killed In Benghazi Attack
On September 11, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., a crowd of Islamists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, ultimately killing U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other foreign service personnel. Certainly a tragedy, the incident became a political lightning rod at home.
Originally thought to be an offshoot of Muslim anger over an American-produced anti-Muslim video, the attack was later revealed to be a premeditated assault staged under cover of the video riots. Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney accused Obama and his administration of trying to cover up the actual facts of the attack. Even after Obama won reelection, Republicans pilloried U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice -- his potential nominee for secretary of state in his second term -- for giving bad information immediately following the attack (even though the CIA admitted giving Rice approved "talking points" for her interviews).
Finally, an internal State Department investigation revealed that the incident was in part due to failed security methods at high levels in the State Department. That, however, will be for someone other than Hillary Clinton to worry about.
Which brings us indirectly to Number One.
1. Obama Re-elected
Barack Obama's reelection to the presidency on November 6 means that his globalized view of U.S. foreign policy will continue for another four years. Romney had tried to cast Obama as an apologist for the United States, but he offered no real foreign policies of his own. In the presidential debate centering on foreign policy, Obama undeniably trounced Romney.
The fact that there will be no transition of administrations means that nations around the world, whether they are allied with the U.S., don't have to guess what's coming next. The renewed Asia Pacific emphasis will continue, and American-led sanctions against Syria and Iran can continue to bear fruit.
Plus, even though Clinton indicated last year that she would stay on as secretary of state in a second Obama term, his reelection ensures continuity at the state department. Last week Obama nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (after Rice withdrew her name from consideration) to be his next secretary of state. Kerry is a foreign policy expert, who has been head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obama said Kerry won't need any on-the-job training, so there won't be any transitional bump.
Whether next year, like last, is a continuation of many ongoing diplomatic issues -- well, only 2013 can reveal that.