Reality Check

The Extricator in Chief

Enough with the fantasies. Barack Obama's not going to reshape the world order in his second term.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

This month, former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski — a man of uncommon intellect, insight, and broad experience — wrote on this site that President Barack Obama should regain his lost credibility on foreign policy, seize the initiative, and stop kowtowing to domestic lobbies.

Freed from election constraints, Brzezinski argued, Obama will no longer be judged by the public, but by history. The implication? The president can afford to be bold and decisive in shaping his foreign-policy legacy.

Is Zbig right? Can the president now set about being the transformer he and his acolytes always wanted him to be — BHO unchained, if you will, perhaps one of the great foreign-policy presidents of the modern era?

It would be terrific. But here’s a shocker for you: I’m betting against it. Here’s why.

The Second-Term Illusion

On paper it all looks so promising. A popular two-term president freed from the pressure of reelection and driven by legacy sets out to conduct big-time diplomacy. Risk-ready rather than risk-averse, political constraints fall away in favor of doing what’s right and what’s in the national interest. The Obama White House turns into a real-life version of The West Wing: beating up on Bibi, striking grand bargains with the Iranian mullahs, and launching big initiatives on climate change.

But the world rarely works out that way. The same political choices, risks, and political laws of gravity that make these issues so tough to handle in a president’s first term seem as difficult in the second. Other issues intrude, and leaders delay the tough calls. Exhausted and weary, second-termers are prone to scandals, stumbles, and mistakes. As the term wears on, lame-duckery starts to compete with legacy. The Chinese, Russians, Israelis, Arabs, and Iranians all know that the clock is running out — sooner than anyone expects, the "let’s wait until the next president appears" syndrome sets in.

The President and His Team

We know the president’s instincts: cautious, deliberate, with a leadership style that prefers to dominate rather than delegate decisions.

We have also seen his basic approach: practical, non-ideological, multilateral where possible, wary of high doctrine, and determined to avoid foreign adventures. Indeed, BHO is the extricator in chief, taking the United States out of old wars and tight spots, while ensuring that the country doesn’t become entangled in new ones. Nor has he demonstrated the kind of strategic grasp of a Henry Kissinger or a James Baker, or exhibited an understanding of the art of making a deal. And neither has anyone around him.

The real question is whether the president — regardless of how smart, intuitive, and nuanced a thinker he is — can be a doer. Does he have the will and the skill to tackle the toughest issues — the grand bargain with Iran or war with the mullahs, or a big initiative to break open the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does he even want to? And because he can’t do all this by his lonesome, will the next secretary of state have the drive, negotiating skills, and personal toughness to shoulder much of the load?

Don’t shoot me. But I just don’t see it — yet.

Domestic Drag

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the United States has a few domestic challenges that need sorting out. The line between what matters at home and America’s capacity to remain a great power abroad no longer exists. The country’s strength abroad has always flowed from its economic and social capacity.

Now, the six deadly Ds — debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, dependence on hydrocarbons, a deteriorating education system, and decaying infrastructure — are slow bleeds sapping the country’s national strength and resolve.

America can’t withdraw from the world, nor can it afford to focus on domestic priorities at the expense of protecting its interests abroad. But the president’s political capital — even after reelection — isn’t limitless. Much of it will be required, particularly in the first year, to deal with economic and other matters, such as immigration reform. And that first year, according to Brzezinski, is critically important when it comes to tackling some of the most troublesome foreign-policy challenges.

Governing is about choosing. I’m all for spending political currency on fixing the country’s broken house before running around trying to fix someone else’s (see: Israel-Palestine). Can America do both? That remains to be seen.

Cruel and Unforgiving World

The key requirement for success in a bolder Obama foreign policy 2.0 is not only will and skill, but opportunity. Indeed, the foundation for foreign-policy success isn’t lack of political constraints — it’s the presence of some flexibility among those engaged in the problem the president is trying to resolve.

That is to say, are the locals also interested in striking the grand bargain or forging the historic peace? To some degree, presidents can help shape that environment, but unless the parties — in today’s world, the Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, or Russians — are ready too, the odds of success are very long indeed.

Some argue that regardless of the risks and odds, trying and failing is better than not trying at all. It’s a noble sentiment, but more appropriate for high school athletics than for the foreign policy of the world’s greatest power. Failure, particularly repeated failure (see again: Israel-Palestine), can actually make matters worse, particularly when the effort isn’t serious or well conceived.

Obama’s foreign policy — with some exceptions — has so far been pretty good. Save killing Osama bin Laden, he has had no spectacular successes, but no spectacular failures either. Extricating America from the two longest wars in its history, preventing another attack on the U.S. homeland, and improving America’s image in the world is pretty good. And I’d even argue that avoiding overreach — even at the expense of a not terribly imaginative foreign policy — is appropriate for the times in which America finds itself.

If leading from behind means thinking things through and ensuring that you have clear, reasonably attainable objectives and the means to achieve them — well, sign me up.

So, Mr. President, here’s how you should really approach your second-term foreign policy: Accept that this may not be the moment for grand transformation, and understand there’s nothing wrong with a series of fruitful transactions.

Test the mullahs on an interim agreement on the nuclear issue as a first step toward a possible broader bargain. Push the Israelis and Palestinians on an interim accord on borders and security if you can. Work on a reasonable reset of relations with the Russians that allows for a degree of cooperation rather than constant competition. And either find a way to inject credibility into the "pivot to Asia," or find another way to check the Chinese but cooperate with them too. Above all, make sure to accept partial victories, if that’s what’s on the table.

At the same time, ignore the advice of those Don Quixotes who are urging you to expend your time and energy — not to mention your rapidly diminishing credibility — on problems you can’t possibly resolve and on fights you aren’t going to win.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

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