Reality Check

The Second-Term Illusion

Or, why Barack won't be beating up on Bibi next year.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s 2013. Barack Obama has just been re-elected, the Democrats have retained their majority in the Senate. And the American president, freed from political constraints in a second term, decides to take on an issue that stymied him so badly in his first.

"Israeli-Palestinian peace is critically important to our national interests," Obama tells his new secretary of state (Kerry, Rice, Donilon — take your pick). "If we don’t move now, the two-state solution is dead." 

"It means taking on Benjamin Netanyahu," the secretary responds.

"I’m ready for that," Obama shoots back. "And besides, it’s time to find out whether I really deserve that Nobel."

According to popular legend, an American president, unshackled by the politics of reelection, is more willing and able to do forceful Arab-Israeli diplomacy (read: pressure on Israel) during a second term. Over the years, this notion and its rallying cry ("Wait until after November") has encouraged and sustained the hopes, dreams, and fears (in some cases) of Americans, Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians, assorted Europeans, and anyone else frustrated by the lack of progress and persuaded that domestic politics is the albatross around the president’s neck.

But of all the urban legends swirling around the presidency and America’s Middle Eastern policy, few are as compelling (or as wrong) as that of the empowered two-term president. Like the belief in the existence of a peace-process tooth fairy, it’s more myth than reality, and here’s why.

No precedent:

That something has never happened doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Life’s full of uncertainties and surprises. But the fact that the second-term fantasy has never played out makes you wonder about the viability of the whole idea. Why is it that in 50 years of U.S. involvement in the peace process, that fantasy has never been tested, let alone realized?

History tells a different and more grounded tale. Most of the toughest diplomacy, particularly with the Israelis, occurred in a president’s first term, not the second.

In 1975, barely a year into his short presidency, the much-underestimated Gerald Ford used very tough diplomacy with then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to secure a second Sinai disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Three years later, Jimmy Carter pushed early in his first term on Arab-Israeli diplomacy partly because he believed that the odds against a breakthrough would grow longer if he waited. He was encouraged in this view by his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who reckoned that it was better to have a battle with the pro-Israel community sooner rather than later.

Likewise, the tough diplomacy leading to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, including the denial of housing-loan guarantees to the Shamir government, also occurred during George H.W. Bush’s first and only term — he never got a second one to test the proposition (and no, Israel wasn’t the reason — it was the economy, stupid).

Of all the second-term diplomacy undertaken by various American presidents, none really fits the model of the empowered, tough-minded two-termer.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy (two Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements in 18 months, from 1973 to 1974) did occur in the president’s second term, but under very strange circumstances. The October 1973 war created the opportunity, and Nixon, weakened by Watergate, wanted to show that American foreign policy was still vibrant and effective.

In 1988, Secretary of State George Shultz pushed a peace initiative during Reagan’s second term, but you’d be hard pressed to call it forceful. Shultz did help engineer a late-in-the-game second term recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but only after its leader Yasser Arafat had met U.S. conditions. And Bill Clinton did undertake a serious diplomatic effort in his second term at Camp David, but it certainly wasn’t tough and determined, and certainly wasn’t designed to squeeze the Israelis. If anything, he pressed the Palestinians, whom he judged to be evasive and withholding.

The fact is, there’s just no historical basis to the proposition of an empowered second-term president getting tough on Arab-Israeli peacemaking or pushing the Israelis around. Regional conditions matter far more than those in Washington.

Same old, same old:

Let’s assume for the sake of this thought experiment that Obama does decide that nothing is more important to his second term than Israeli-Palestinian peace (a dubious assumption, but I’ll humor myself). And let’s further stipulate that he’s determined to find a way forward. Domestic politics will be the least of the obstacles that stand in his way, truly more a speed bump than a Mount Everest.

A willful president is critical to success. But more important is the situation in the region and the calculations of Arabs and Israelis. Today, three challenges impede a two state solution: an Israeli prime minister who’s very far from either Obama’s or the Palestinian position on a deal, a divided Palestinian national movement, and the uncertainties of an Arab Spring that will further limit Israel’s flexibility. All will still be there in 2013.

And then there’s Iran. Assuming we get through the end of this year without an Israeli military strike (a pretty good bet) or a negotiated solution (another safe wager), the nuclear issue will be front and center in January 2013.

The president’s effort to buy time and space to allow sanctions and diplomacy to work to preempt a military solution may be a good idea, but it has created a longer-term problem. In shifting from the rhetoric of containment to prevention, Obama has laid the groundwork for making Iran’s nuclear program an American problem and maybe paved the way for a military solution too.

With Israel and now America focused so much on the mullahs’ putative nuclear capacity, it’s hard to see how any Israeli prime minister — particularly this one — would make any concessions on peace with the Palestinians until the Iran situation were much clearer. Add to that the southward-bound direction of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship and you have 1,001 reasons to avoid decisions on the Palestinian issue.

What you see is what you get:

I believe Obama really cares about the Israeli-Palestinian issue; I also think he’s terribly frustrated by the lack of progress and holds Israel, specifically Netanyahu, primarily responsible. He’d really like to get tough.

At the same time, Obama has proven himself to be a cautious, pragmatic, and deliberate man. Like FDR, he wanted to be a transformative political figure and alter the trajectory of American domestic and foreign policy. But his nature is more the transactor and the dealmaker. That’s who he is.

The president isn’t a man of any extreme — the community organizer, campus radical, alien president trope is a bunch of partisan mumbo jumbo. What’s important about Obama’s storyline is Harvard Law School, the U.S. Senate, two best-selling books, and succeeding in American politics. To do so, let alone become president, he had to be a man of the system.

When it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue, a second term is more likely to see Obama the unchanged, not the unchained. He’s plenty frustrated by Netanyahu. But Obama lacks FDR’s partisan toughness and fight; public anger doesn’t come naturally, nor does going for the jugular. Instead, he’s a compromiser always looking for middle ground and balance, even when it seems naive. That’s where his vision of the truth (and solutions) lie.

He has gotten emotional on one issue and that’s health care, and he was prepared to fight for it. As for Israelis and Palestinians? He’ll take a look in 2013, see where the lay of the land is, and carefully calculate the odds of success or failure. Remember, for a two-term president, legacy cuts both ways: You want to be remembered as the hero, not the goat, and that means leaving a vapor trail of kudos, not stumbles, let alone outright failures. And going all out on Arab-Israeli peace when the conditions just aren’t there has failure written all over it.

The reality of the second term:

Every administration is different, but there’s a reason the second term doesn’t produce unchained presidents throwing their weight and influence around.

First, they don’t have as much of either. The first day after Inauguration 2.0, two clocks start ticking: the legacy clock and the lame-duck clock. The first measures what a president can accomplish in the time he has left with the street cred and reputation he’s developed; the second watches those assets slip away. It’s a race, really.

Presidents and their staffs also get tired, are scandal-prone, and start making mistakes in a second term (see: Reagan and Iran-Contra; Clinton and Monica Lewinsky). And then there’s the problem of how America’s allies and adversaries perceive the president’s waning power. Arafat’s decision to pass up Clinton’s proposals on final-status deals in December 2000 was clearly driven partly by his galactic miscalculation that he’d get a better deal and a tougher line against Israel from the son of George H.W. Bush.

The fact that Obama won’t get a third term may even work against him. Beginning Jan. 21, if not Nov. 5, the Arabs and the Israelis will begin to take the measure of a president who now has a guaranteed expiration date.

If there’s anything the locals are really good at, it’s evasion, delay, and maneuver in the face of initiatives they don’t like. And they’ll be taking Barack Obama’s measure to see how serious he really is.

What they’ll conclude, of course, depends on how the president behaves. But the obstacles standing in the way of a two-state solution are formidable and growing. More than likely, the second-term illusion will remain just that. And in assessing Obama’s intentions, credibility, and drive on Middle East peace, the Arabs and Israelis may well conclude that if it swims, has feathers, and quacks, it’s more than likely a duck — and a lame one at that.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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