Look whose policy is beholden to elections

Look whose policy is beholden to elections

A standard complaint of the last decade is that President Bush’s  foreign policy overly relied upon elections.  Someone trotted out this tired trope as recently as a few days ago at the annual CNAS hoe-down. (The event was a great success, and I encourage folks to watch the archived video, if you missed it. I had lots of fun on my panel with Bob Kagan, Colin Kahl, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is something of a rock star at these sorts of events…but I digress…)

The Bush critique was usually offered in a very simplistic fashion, but it was not entirely without merit. Certainly 2006 was a tough year in this regard, what with the difficulties the Iraqi government faced in forming a government after their December 2005 election. And, of course, Hamas’ electoral success in the Palestinian elections of 2006 greatly complicated the peace process. The "don’t make U.S. policy hostage to elections" became a standard partisan talking point, and the Obama team came into office promising a more hard-headed, less naive approach to elections.

So it is ironic that elections have proven so difficult for the administration — indeed, pretty much every election (domestic and foreign) has produced a setback for Obama. The domestic electoral setbacks are obvious, but the foreign electoral setbacks have been consequential as well. By year, consider just this small sample, limited to just one election each year:


Obama over-invests in the Afghanistan elections, over-reacts to electoral irregularities, and then backs down, forced to deal with a re-elected Karzai who has lost all trust in his American partners. U.S.-Afghan policy has never recovered since — even a surge was insufficient to regain lost momentum.


Iraq has elections, but the leader with a narrow advantage in the vote-cout — Ayad Allawi — is unable to forge a government. Iraq plunges into many months of political paralysis, accelerating the evaporation of American leverage (an evaporation that was already happening too fast because of Obama’s commitment to leave Iraq regardless of the consequences).  


The Arab Spring catches Obama (and, to be fair, most everyone else) off-guard and the administration struggles to forge a viable strategy for balancing the groundswell of support for greater electoral accountability with the need to advance basic national interests in the region, cf. the success of islamist parties in Egypt.


Putin deals a death-blow to the "reset" by running a successful presidential campaign on a blatantly anti-American platform.

This weekend, there will be two more elections, and the betting money is both will produce further head-aches for the Obama administration. The Egyptian elections are in turmoil, following the court ruling that the Parliament must be disbanded. And the Greek elections may light the fuse that blows up the eurozone.

Of course, President Obama is not the primary actor in any of these electoral stories and he does not deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the adverse developments. But he is not an innocent bystander, and, crucially, he has an obligation to forge a foreign policy that can preserve U.S. national interests even in stormy electoral seasons.  

Because of the repercussions of some of the upcoming elections, especially the Greek one, it might even be said that what happens in those elections could determine what happens in the one election where Obama IS the primary actor: His own.