MADRID – Humbled by the Republicans’ landslide mid-term election victory, US President Barack Obama will now need to negotiate every minor detail of his domestic agenda with a confrontational Congress – at least until the next elections in 2012.
Congress can obstruct Obama’s foreign policy as well, but this remains a domain where any US president “enjoys almost royal prerogatives,” to use Alexis de Tocqueville’s somewhat inflated description.
These prerogatives, however, have so far allowed Obama only to describe the world that he wants, not to bring it about. George W. Bush committed the cardinal sin of all fallen empires – that of overreach. The Obama alternative was supposed to be collective global security sustained by multilateral structures. Rather than containing rising powers such as China and India, they would be drawn into a civilized world order, one based on global governance and “smart diplomacy.”
Yet, instead of building such an order, Obama’s presidency has so far been a mighty struggle to stem the decline in American power. He has fallen desperately short in making real progress towards the Promised Land, in which America lives in peace with the Muslim world, thanks to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement; brings about a nuclear-free planet (a noble, yet entirely delusional pledge); gets Russia’s support in addressing other global problems; contains China’s quest to translate its growing economic power into major strategic gains; ends its two diversionary wars in Muslim countries; and leads a solid international alliance to cut short Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Foreign policy has almost invariably been the refuge of US presidents hit by mid-term defeats. But foreign policy cannot be detached from its domestic foundations altogether. Can a president shown to be hesitant in the Middle East and Afghanistan even before his mid-term setback muster the authority needed to advance his global vision after such a domestic debacle?
One should hope so, if only because no better alternative to Obama’s vision is in view. And now, with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Obama might not be able to fulfill major foreign-policy promises, including ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a key item in the president’s vision for reinvigorating the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Should Congress not ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, Obama’s most tangible foreign-policy achievement so far, the entire inspection system for nuclear arms might collapse.
But, with respect to most other foreign-policy issues, the question is one of presidential leadership. Obama’s problem lies not in his vision for America and the world, but in his deficient efforts to move from theory to practice.
Nevertheless, despite the new Congress’s overwhelmingly pro-Israel cast, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should not assume that the Republicans will stymie Obama if he pushes resolutely for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. After all, it was a Republican who produced the Reagan Plan, calling on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders.
Thus, however much they despised Bill Clinton, the Republicans were prepared to allow him the glory of being a Middle East peacemaker, believing that any agreement reached with the Palestinians at the 2000 Camp David Summit was in America’s interest.
Obama was recently advised by David Broder, a long-time Washington Post columnist, to launch an attack on Iran. Convinced that history will judge the president by his success in containing the Iranian threat, Broder also assumes that a war with Iran would reignite the American economy. That is a strange idea, given that today’s two ongoing wars have only compounded the US economy’s weaknesses.
An American war against Iran is plausible only as a response to a blatant and immediate Iranian challenge to vital US interests, such as a major terrorist attack, an invasion of an ally in the Gulf, or disruption of the free flow of Middle East oil to the West. The Iranian regime is far too astute to cross any of these red lines.
Iran, like North Korea, will continue to test Obama’s capacity to build international alliances aimed at putting pressure on defiant states. Those, like Netanyahu, who stick to the lunacy of a military operation against Iran, will not find a ready ally in Obama. Such an operation would make America appear to be doing Israel’s bidding – even George W. Bush refused when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked the US to attack a Syrian nuclear reactor – and destroy Obama’s strategy of reconciliation with the Muslim world.
Glory in foreign policy is no guarantee of future electoral gains. Conversely, Obama did not lose the mid-term elections because of his foreign policy’s inconsistencies. He lost because US unemployment remains near 10%, with no prospect of rapid improvement. And only one major foreign-policy test for Obama has clear implications for the US economy and job creation: the need to recalibrate relations with China in a way that restores balance to bilateral trade.
At the end of the day, Bill Clinton was right: now, as then, “It’s the economy, stupid.” It certainly wasn’t – and isn’t – foreign policy, as George H. W. Bush, one of America’s most proficient presidents in international affairs – can attest.
Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.