U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday Dec. 5, 2012. NATO foreign ministers were set Wednesday to shift their focus to the way forward in Afghanistan during a second day of talks in Brussels, as the military alliance prepares to withdraw its combat troops in 2014. (AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)
Debate over the looming "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases and spending cuts is consuming most of the political oxygen in Washington lately. But President Barack Obama also faces huge second-term foreign policy challenges.
And he does so with an unraveling national-security team.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to move on. But a possible successor, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, faces tough Republican Senate opposition over her factually challenged public comments on the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist raid on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also suggests he's anxious to leave. And the Central Intelligence Agency is being run by an acting director, Michael Morrell, after well-respected chief David Petraeus resigned because of an extramarital affair.
Meanwhile, civil unrest is near the boiling point in Egypt and violence continues unabated in Syria. President Bashar Assad's "fall is inevitable. It's just a question of how many people will die until that date occurs," Clinton said Wednesday in Brussels.
Iran's nuclear ambitions continue to rattle the West and North Korea is readying a new long-range missile test. Mideast tensions simmer.
The United Nations' rebuke to the U.S. and Israel by voting overwhelmingly to upgrade the Palestinian territories to a "nonmember observer state" prompted a retaliatory Israeli wave of new settlement units in occupied areas.
And the Senate rejected a popular U.N. treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities, ignoring a personal appeal from onetime GOP standard-bearer Bob Dole. "This shouldn't have been a battle," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
On foreign policy, "we look a little bit indecisive, disorderly, leaderless," Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, told MSNBC.
During the campaign, Obama advocated nation-building "right here at home." But foreign-policy challenges could complicate his efforts to secure a domestic legacy.
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