Terms of Engagement

The Accidental Domestic President

For Barack Obama, the world will have to wait.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Woodrow Wilson famously told a friend, just before taking office, that "it would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs." George W. Bush, yet more innocent of the subject than Wilson, might well have said the same thing, had he been one to traffic in the ironies of fate. So might have Bill Clinton. It’s a typical pattern for U.S. presidents to find their domestic agenda upended by unforeseen crises abroad.

Barack Obama is the rare, perhaps unique, example of the opposite phenomenon. As a candidate, Obama’s message of change applied equally to "the ways of Washington" and to America’s place in the world. He had, as I concluded after spending time with him in the summer of 2007, a real worldview; he spoke of foreign affairs not in the language of threat but of opportunity, offering a new voice, and a new face, with which America could enlist allies to shape a new world order and tackle global warming, nuclear nonproliferation, the problem of fragile states.

That was then. When the White House announced last week that Obama would postpone a planned trip to Asia to lobby for his health-care legislation, it confirmed that foreign policy would take a back seat to America’s grave domestic and political problems. The economic crisis, of course, had radically reshaped Obama’s scale of priorities long before he assumed office; foreign affairs took up less than a quarter of his inaugural address. And then Republican intractability sent the debate over health-care reform into one sudden-death overtime after another. The world beyond America’s borders is of course no less salient, and no less threatening, than ever; but Americans are looking at it through the wrong end of the binoculars. Even the facts seem different today: As the economy has continued in crisis, fewer and fewer Americans say they believe that human activity is chiefly responsible for global warming — presumably because if we were causing the Earth to heat up, we would have to do something to stop it.

The Great Depression deepened the isolationist spirit of the 1920s to the point that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself a committed internationalist, was forced to sign and enforce the odious Neutrality Act of 1935. Today, the United States’ most passionate political movement, the Tea Party, has virtually nothing to say about foreign policy. The only reason a larger chunk of Americans haven’t become ardent isolationists is that the threat of terrorism is so much more vivid today than the threat of fascism was in the 1930s. Anger and fear still sell: Both Sarah Palin and Scott Brown have struck a chord among the Tea Party faithful by criticizing Obama for seeking to close Guantánamo and proposing to try accused terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in federal criminal court.

Obama has not, of course, given up on hope. Sometime over the course of the next month he will presumably release a formal statement of policy known as the nuclear posture review, which will mark the first step on the long journey toward eliminating nuclear weapons that he promised during the campaign and reiterated in his Prague speech last April. But the atmosphere of exuberant possibility raised by Prague has long since dissipated, both because the publication of the review has been so long delayed and because, according to a wide range of officials in and out of the administration, the original vision will be much compromised. How could it be otherwise? Americans are no longer in the mood for transformative visions. Perhaps fear of the worst is always stronger than hope for the better; certainly it is now.

The review has been delayed not only by fierce internal discussion but by the months-long debate over AfPak strategy, which put almost all other foreign-policy concerns on the back burner. Obama hadn’t expected that, any more than he had expected the worst recession in 70 years. Foreign-policy-as-opportunity was eclipsed by foreign-policy-as-crisis-management, much as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan pushed Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy to the sidelines. And then, of course, the whole subject was buried beneath the avalanche of health care. The AfPak debate feels almost as long ago as the Prague speech. As Peter Baker observed last week in the New York Times, the president has only glancingly referred to the decisive battle for Marja since it began almost six weeks ago.

Nothing, of course, is permanent in politics. I was foolish enough to write in the early fall of 2007 that voters weren’t buying Obama’s worldview; a year later, they elected him president. Obama has just gained a momentous and cathartic victory on health care; it’s impossible to predict today how much additional political space, if any, will open up as a result. Joblessness, of course, remains extremely high by historic standards. Unless and until it subsides, foreign affairs will matter even less than usual (unless something terrible happens), and Obama and his team will be torn between making good on the transformative vision of the campaign and accommodating the dour and negative public mood, which right now seems to be relentlessly bearing the Democrats toward a 1994-style Waterloo in the midterm elections.

Perhaps the nuclear review will offer some guidance to the president’s inclinations. During the 2008 primary campaign, no single issue more powerfully illustrated the difference between Obama’s promise of decisive change and Hillary Clinton’s cautious incrementalism than his repeated vow to eliminate nuclear weapons, to discard the old paradigm of deterrence in favor of a genuine commitment to nonproliferation. Traditional, battle-scarred Democrats — like Clinton — typically avoid calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons for fear of being branded soft on defense. Obama, however, insisted that U.S. national security requires discarding the hard line in favor of the soft.

And now? Obama has already made a large gesture to mollify Republicans, senior military officers, and the nuclear labs by budgeting a 13 percent increase for U.S. nuclear infrastructure at a time when other agencies are being flatlined. His senior officials have ruled against almost all changes in policy — such as a pledge of "no first use" of nukes — which might be criticized as too soft. What remains of the Prague vision is the promise to delegitimize nuclear weapons by sharply restricting the scenarios in which they could be used, and to make a down payment on the goal of eliminating such weapons by driving toward much deeper cuts than are envisioned by the current talks with Russia.

If these vows, solemnly undertaken and often repeated, are grossly compromised or reduced to high-flown twaddle, we will know that Obama has accepted an era of reduced expectations. That would be the politically prudent choice. But Obama kept selling his vision in 2007 even when polls and short-sighted journalists suggested he was foolhardy to do so. He didn’t take the prudent path on health care, and yet emerged the winner. He is a pragmatist; but he’s no cynic. Perhaps, even in the face of public apathy and Tea Party hostility, he’ll make good on his promise to restore American leadership.

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