After 2010 elections, Obama will look abroad
Not that much of the speculation about how President Obama will respond to the Democrats' likely losses in Tuesday's elections has concerned foreign affairs -- which is surprising.
True, international issues -- from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Middle East peace process -- have hardly figured in congressional campaigns across the country. Yet the conventional wisdom says the midterms' principal result will be a deadlocked Congress in which Obama's major domestic initiatives will stand little chance of passing. That means that, like more than a few presidents before him, he is likely to turn abroad in search of accomplishments to propel his reelection campaign.
Bill Clinton is remembered for his domestic "triangulations" after the Democrats 1994 mideterm losses. But in the next two years Clinton also oversaw a major U.S. military intervention in the Balkans, brokered an interim deal between Israelis and Palestinians, signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia and ordered cruise missile strikes against Iraq.
So what could Obama accomplish abroad between now and 2012?
One possibility will open before him later this week, when -- like Clinton before him -- he leaves the country after the election for a long tour of Asia. Obama's trip will take him to the region's big democracies -- India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea -- which in recent months have shown signs of growing nervousness about China's aggressiveness. Therein lies the opportunity: to rebuild the U.S. position as a leader and defender of Asian democracies against Beijing's belligerent autocracy.
While Obama is away, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will travel to the United States for a potentially crucial meeting with Vice President Biden. The last encounter between these two last Spring led to a disastrous public dispute between Washington and Jerusalem over Israel's settlement construction in Jerusalem. But Biden actually has better rapport with Netanyahu than does Obama -- and Obama badly needs to persuade Netanyahu to make concessions on settlements that will allow the resumption of Middle East peace talks.
In August, Obama pushed Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to set a one-year deadline for agreeing on the terms for a Palestinian state. In so doing, he ensured that he will begin his reelection campaign either with a historic breakthrough in the Middle East -- or a failure for which he will likely take much of the blame.
Similarly, Obama has set a mid-2011 deadline for beginning troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and pledged that all American troops will leave Iraq by the end of 2011. If he is able to fulfill both those pledges without plunging either country into chaos, he will have two more big accomplishments with which to impress voters -- particularly in the Democratic base.
So the next 14 months will produce plenty of presidential action on foreign policy, even if there are no sudden crises in places like Yemen or Sudan. And there is one wild card: Iran. Negotiations with its regime about its nuclear program are expected to resume later this month, but there is no indication so far that its hardline regime will be willing to stop or even to slow down its nuclear program. My colleague David Broder speculated over the weekend that Obama will lead the U.S. and its allies in a confrontation -- or even a war -- with Iran that will reshape the political landscape in 2012.
I think that's unlikely. Senior administration officials appear relatively relaxed about the Iranian threat for now, in part because of technical problems Tehran has been having enriching uranium. Even if the regime remains defiant, a move toward military confrontation by either the United States or Israel before the next presidential election won't happen unless Iran itself takes radical action -- such as expelling UN inspectors.
Still, foreign affairs will loom larger in the political debate by the time the next presidential campaign begins. Thanks in part to the timetables he has set, Obama will either have some big successes to talk about -- or his opponents will have some fresh clubs.
| November 2, 2010; 12:14 PM ET
Categories: Diehl | Tags: Jackson Diehl
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