Fighting on many fronts at once

President Barack Obama is edging towards a shootout with the powerful national gun lobby next year but his bravery though long overdue could be counterproductive for him.

In 2013-2014, his political capital will take severe beatings from other equally vital confrontations arising from foreign policy. He will need all the non-partisan support he can muster from the American people to get through those crises to mold his legacy for history.

What does he want more? To sharply weaken the right to bear arms in America or be the President who prevented mayhem in the Middle East and South Asia to protect his people against terrorism and wider regional wars. The guns issue is so divisive that he may not be able to achieve both in satisfactory measure.

The showdown with the National Rifle Association’s backers is most desirable and long overdue but will be the mother of battles in US political history. A few days after the Newton horror, a December 18 Gallup poll about possible gun controls showed that a small majority of 53% favored placing armed police in schools and a third favored giving weapons to school personnel. Apparently, those people think potential killers would be deterred if they knew that some staff in schools would shoot back.

“These tragedies must end,” Obama said. “And to end them, we must change.” But there are no easy answers to the change that would end such massacres. In Norway, where owning guns is severely regulated, Anders Breivik killed 69 young people in a single rampage. No laws or police could stop him or even knew that he existed.

This gun control dilemma is especially American. Most countries struggle with how to take away people’s weapons. In US, the struggle is about how to let people keep them. The current soul-searching is only about the kinds of weapons they can use. Many feel no unease at letting people own weapons of war, such as assault weapons – just like soldiers, the paramilitary and police.

Obama should step warily into this ever-boiling American cauldron. His political capital from the comfortable November victory is already depleting because the fiscal cliff still looms. Even if it is averted, the compromises made will cost the President in the short term until longer term benefits emerge.

An avalanche of other events is also waiting to bury Obama’s best intentions in 2013. Top of the list is the Syrian disaster. Bashar al-Assad might be deposed but the Syrian National Council recognized as legitimate by Obama is far from being a poster child for his vision of a democratic Syria at peace with itself and the world. It is a rag tag of heavily armed extremist factions temporarily tied together by a common cause but very far from being friends among themselves. The nightmare possibility that post-Assad Syria turns into a haven for Al-Qaeda style Sunni fanatics is real.

Egypt, the region’s most influential Arab actor, is unstable. It could slide towards an hard-eyed anti-Israel regime under a Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamic coalition. Or, start a long wallow in feckless and probably violent confusion involving the army, Islamists, secularists and Coptic Christians.

Afghanistan, from which Obama has promised withdrawal starting next year, is a witch’s brew. Hardcore Pashtun Taliban have fled the American “surge” into Pakistan’s North West Frontier and, worse, to Karachi the main port and site of major naval and air force bases. Washington has no control over what these Pashtuns do in Pakistan or how they fight in Afghanistan. Its control in Afghanistan will also disappear as it withdraws. When this pressure cooker blows, Obama’s reputation will hit the ceiling regardless of the good he might do within America on gun control, entitlement spending and the budget.

Iran is also simmering. It fears Israeli retribution sometime in 2013 to stop its nuclear bomb-building ambitions. So it is doggedly marshaling capabilities to foster violence and trouble in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, Jordan, Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. More bombs and war will not turn it into a moderate accomplice of the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia.

On current indications, all these presages will come to a head in 2013 and 2014. Can Obama handle such huge mess in the throes of raging divisions among the American people over emotionally-charged gun-related issues, tied to the Constitution it teaches all children to revere from cradle to grave?

Author: BRIJ KHINDARIA, Foreign Affairs Columnist