Will Obama’s Foreign Policy Finally Emerge?

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Will Obama’s Foreign Policy Finally Emerge?

Given the poisonous partisanship of modern Washington, it was hard to know what President Obama would do on foreign policy if he weren’t scared about the Democrats losing the next election. Now that excuse is gone.

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in the Oval Office on March 19, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Amid the usual post-election barrages of commentary about what messages the election result supposedly carries and how elected leaders ought to change their behavior in response, it is difficult to find any issue-specific messages about U.S. foreign policy in this week’s result.

As Michael Cohen points out, the available evidence from polls, including exit polls, is that foreign policy issues did not play a significant role in the outcome. It is true, as Gordon Adams observes, that a “witches’ brew, fired up by Republican candidates,” of fears did play a role — fear of getting attacked by an ISIS terrorist, of catching Ebola, and of being swamped by immigrants flooding across the southern border. But as far as presidential policy is concerned these are not matters that were the making of the current president or are translatable into changes of course in his policies.

The one thing about Barack Obama that is different now that the election is over is, of course, that not only will he never be running for anything again but also no one else will be running for anything that will change the make-up of the U.S. Congress during his presidency.

Some suggest that he still needs to be concerned about affecting the prospects for whoever will be his party’s candidate for president in 2016, but that does not really need to be a constraint. Visible distance between Mr. Obama and the Democratic presidential candidate will not necessarily hurt the latter and might even help.

So now, more than ever, the President should think and act strictly and narrowly according to what is in his best judgment in the best interest of the nation while excluding from his calculations what is popular or politic. In practice this advice will frequently conflict with another common theme of post-election commentary, which is that the President needs to try more than ever to reach across the party divide to work with the opposition, now that the opposition has won big.

The first type of advice should take precedence because we (and Mr. Obama) already have enough experience to know that the second type of advice will in the current circumstances yield few results. The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank aptly summarized the political dynamics involved by observing that “Republicans didn’t run on an agenda other than antipathy to all things Obama” and that “it was enough, electorally, for Republicans to say they were against whatever President Obama was for.”

An optimistic view is that having majority status in both houses of Congress will impart a greater sense of ownership of policy and an associated sense of responsibility that has hitherto been lacking, but it is unrealistic to think that the target of the unrelenting antipathy that made for a winning electoral strategy is likely suddenly to be perceived instead as a partner in policymaking.

Mitch McConnell, the senior senator from Kentucky who is in line to become Senate majority leader, declared during Mr. Obama’s first term that the number one goal of himself and his party colleagues in Congress was not to improve the state of the economy, to enhance the health and welfare of Americans, to strengthen the standing of the United States in the world, or to do anything else to further the national interest; according to the senator their number one goal was instead to deny President Obama a second term.

They failed in that goal but instead did what was the nearest thing to it, which was, in Gordon Adams’s words, to mount a campaign “to prevent the president from achieving any of his agenda — from health care to climate change to immigration.” Do not expect such habits to change now that a blocking minority in the Senate has become a majority.

In considering what a hypothetical president who is perfectly tuned to what is good for the national interest and not necessarily good politics ought to be concentrating on in foreign policy over the next two years, one should think first in terms of long-term trends and future challenges that are not fashionable fears of the moment such as ISIS, Ebola, or those scruffy immigrants.

Climate change certainly deserves to be at or near the top of any such list, but also high on the list should be more of that pivoting to East Asia that so far has been more of a talked-about concept than a thorough addressing of America’s future relations with China.

Middle Eastern problems will necessarily continue to limit the amount of pivoting, and within the Middle East the issues deserving priority include one to which Mr. Obama admirably has already devoted considerable political capital — conclusion of an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program — and one to which he gave one shot and then pretty much gave up: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These two issues could appropriately be treated as more linked than they usually are treated, given the motivations of the Israeli government in opposing any agreement with Iran and given how that government accounts for such a large part of the overall opposition to an agreement.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government ought to be called explicitly to account for the phoniness of its opposition to an agreement, in a way that the United States has not explicitly done. In fact, just about anything having to do with Israel, given the extraordinary role Israel-related issues play in American politics, constitutes a prime area in which our hypothetical president would behave differently from real American politicians.

If Barack Obama is to become more like that hypothetical president who is selflessly guided by a dispassionate sense of the national interest rather than by politics, he will face a tough test in living up to a standard that he has talked about himself: not doing stupid stuff.

The test is tough because not doing certain things detrimental to the national interest, as distinct from positively doing things that would further that interest, may run up not only against what is currently politically popular but also against the sorts of considerations that make for a favorably regarded legacy.

History tends to treat presidents who accomplish positive and significant things more favorably than it treats presidents whose chief contributions to the Republic were to resist pressures to do damaging things. Perhaps the closest thing to an exception was Dwight Eisenhower, who served the Republic very well not only through his positive accomplishments but also by avoiding major mistakes even when friends and allies (e.g., Suez 1956) were doing stupid stuff.

If Mr. Obama is to become more like the hypothetical president, he should have begun showing signs of that after his own re-election in 2012. Some believe they see some such signs, but the signs are not clear. The President’s policy toward ISIS, for example, looks to a large extent to be a bending to popular will and emotions. But he still has two more years to demonstrate otherwise.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies.

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