The period of time prior to a presidential election is always a vulnerable time for the United States. It is especially so at the end of a two-term administration. The current administration is less focused on new policies than locking in old policies and perhaps a positive legacy. It is normal also for the talent pool to have diminished—good people tend to leave earlier. There is also fatigue and a sense of just running out the clock.
Key nations understand this period of weakness. They also understand that whoever wins in November, there will be a period of transition during which the ability to act will be diminished. New people have to be identified for jobs, confirmed if necessary and come up to spend on events and policy options.
Some competitors will certainly take advantage of this period to create new facts on the ground in areas of their interest. Some will see opportunities to influence US policies they do not like.
Russia, China, Gulf States, Europeans and others will all be sensitive to this opportunity.
One particular pending event stands out. Mosul. A highly anticipated military approach to expel ISIS from this large Iraqi city will begin either shortly before or (my bet) after the US elections. As mentioned in this blog months ago, this could be a disaster for the Obama legacy. Yes, they (Iraqi forces aided by the US) can expel ISIS and that is how they are trying to define success. However, there remains the question of what happens afterwards? Who runs the area? Who provides security, what provincial leaders will be empowered? Will it be national justice applied or local tribal? The post conflict stabilization (to use the popular term) is very uncertain. Prime Minister Abadi, by many accounts, is trying hard to strike a good balance. Days ago he met with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in Baghdad. But what about the broad range of Sunni leaders left out (sometimes actively opted out) of the political morass in Baghdad?
Military plans are much easier (but not easy) to formulate than post-conflict reconstruction and governance. We saw this blatantly in 2003 and we are about to see something similar in Mosul 2016-7.
US policy in Iraq, always wobbly in this administration, will be even more so in the next few months. Iran will certainly be aware of this and we can be certain they will try to take advantage of US indecisiveness and the weakness of the central government in Baghdad. I hope Prime Minister Abadi can achieve his vision of a strong inclusive Iraq at a time when the US is not and Iran has a competing objective. The next couple of months will be telling.