Don’t Go Changing, Mr. President

The midterm drubbing wasn't a referendum on Obama's foreign policy. In the next two years, he should double down and stick to his guns.


In the wake of Tuesday’s midterm drubbing, President Obama is going to be getting a lot of advice from pundits — "move to the center," "no, move to the left"; "work with Republicans," "no, tell Republicans to go to hell"; "fire some of your staff," "no, fire all of your staff," etc.

He should ignore most of it (except for mine, of course), but especially when it comes to foreign policy.

The global stage is the only place left where Obama has any flexibility and hope for significant policy achievements. Rather than slow up, he should move forward aggressively on everything from free trade to an Iran nuclear deal. For all the "we can find common ground" talk in the wake of Tuesday’s bloodbath, we’ve actually got two years ahead of us of greater Washington dysfunction and gridlock. Foreign policy is the best way for Obama to reassert himself politically and repair his broken public image.

Part of the reason for Obama to take a devil-may-care attitude is that, to a large extent, he can’t win: voters are angry that the world seems to be falling apart (it’s not), but are blaming Obama for not fixing it (which he can’t). On policy grounds, most Americans are supportive of the positions Obama has taken. For example, a Wall Street Journal exit poll found that Americans approved of his actions against the Islamic State (IS) by a 58 percent to 35 percent margin — a sizable advantage at a time when Obama’s policies and the man himself were about the furthest thing from popular.

That doesn’t mean voters actually care about foreign policy — judging from every piece of available polling evidence, they don’t. According to the exit polls, foreign policy was ranked a top concern by about one out of 7 voters, well behind the economy and health care. For those who did take the issue seriously, they tended to lean Republican, which doesn’t really tell us much: generally speaking, the entire electorate on Tuesday leaned Republican.

So the election results were not a vote against foreign policy activism or even a verdict on the specific elements of Obama’s foreign policy positions. They were an inchoate cry of frustration at continued economic anxiety and a steady drumbeat of bad international news for which Obama, as president, is being blamed.

Where foreign policy did matter was in further shaking voter confidence in Obama and his presidential stewardship. Back in October, there was a fascinating survey that looked at the views of so-called Walmart Moms in North Carolina and Louisiana. What the pollsters found was that in September, IS was a "dominant concern," but by October it was almost "completely replaced by worries about Ebola." Still, none of the women considered the Ebola threat "imminent" or felt that it affected them personally. Rather, they were emblematic of a larger set of anxieties — the economy, the role of government, and national security, writ large.

These issues likely did not change many votes on their own, but simply reinforced the abiding sense of malaise and frustration about the direction of the country. While it’s difficult to draw conclusions from such a small sample, according to Jeremy Rosner, a pollster at the firm Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner, these perceptions of global instability — and a president who seemed incapable of utilizing political power effectively in order to deal with them — further drove down his negatives and made him a national drag on Democrats. This perception issue, however, is not one that Obama can easily fix or should spend much time trying to repair. What’s done is done.

For much of his first term, Obama consistently made the mistake of letting politics inordinately drive his foreign policy decision-making. It made him risk averse to a fault. There is no better example of this than his decision to send 30,000 surge troops to Afghanistan in 2009, a number shaped as much by politics as it was by smart strategic thinking. In his second term, however, Obama appeared to be guided more by his own judgment and foreign policy instincts rather than by the pundit class, his political opponents, or even his own advisors.  

On the civil war in Syria, he defied for years those pushing for a stronger response and even the virtually unanimous view of his national security team calling for direct U.S. engagement in the fight.

On Israel, he’s increasingly thrown political caution to the wind by ratcheting up the criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies and his government’s conduct in the recent Gaza War.

On Afghanistan, beginning back in his first term he defied his own military advisors and announced a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops — a controversial position to which he has held fast.

On the Iranian nuclear talks, he’s weathered constant criticisms from Republicans, even staking his ground successfully on a congressional fight with AIPAC over further sanctions against Tehran.

Even on Russia, he’s defied those who argued that the United States should be more forceful in response to Moscow’s actions in Crimea, while at the same time deploying a baseline of fighter planes, warships, and troops into Eastern Europe. It doesn’t mean these have necessarily always been the right decisions, but the White House has shown a greater willingness to take political risks than it had earlier in the Obama presidency. And it’s a path it must follow over the next two years.

That means, first and foremost, continuing the push for a nuclear deal with Iran, which would be the crown jewel of Obama’s non-proliferation agenda. Time, however, is of the essence. With a November 24 deadline fast approaching and the distinct possibility that a GOP-controlled Senate will push for new sanctions on Iran, reaching a deal sooner rather than later — even if it means concessions from the United States, for example, on the number of centrifuges that Iran can maintain — is essential.

While the crisis in Iraq and Syria in the fight against IS clearly dented Obama’s public image, there is little appetite for U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq — both among the American people and certainly in the White House. It would be best for Obama to continue with the relatively low-key effort he’s taken to date of supporting the Iraqi military, building a regional coalition to confront IS, and maintaining the discrete use of U.S. airpower. It’s probably the least-worst strategy available, though it likely won’t come close to meeting Obama’s silly goal of "destroying" IS. But it’s the one that probably has the best chance of success in containing the terrorist group.

On Israel, the White House has signaled in recent weeks that it is more willing than ever to confront Netanyahu directly over the issue of settlement construction in the West Bank. With no election on the horizon and enmity between Washington and Jerusalem at record highs, Obama should continue to hold Israel’s feet to the fire, either at the U.N. Security Council or in making public the U.S. plan for a two-state solution. (Openly snubbing the country’s defense minister in late October was just a taste of what’s to come.) It may be the only hope left of avoiding further bloodshed in the region and further isolation for Israel. Hillary Clinton surely won’t be thrilled about it, but it might even help, by allowing her to establish some distance between herself and the president on the issue.

One of the few ways in which the GOP victory on Tuesday could work in Obama’s favor is on trade. For several years now, the administration has been negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP) and key trading partners in East Asia (Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP), but has done so with strong pushback from congressional Democrats. With the GOP in charge in the Senate and with a larger Republican majority in the House, the potential for Congress to grant Obama fast track trade authority, which would allow an up or down vote on any negotiated deals, increases dramatically. To be sure, this is far from a slam dunk issue for the White House, since such a move would almost certainly frustrate and annoy key Democratic allies. But considering Obama’s rhetorical embrace of free trade up to this point it’s hard to imagine him walking away from congressional authority that would strengthen his hand in already protracted trade negotiations.

Finally, it’s time for Obama to re-discover the pivot to Asia. For far too long, the Middle East has sucked up the president’s time and energy, and taken him away from the task that is perhaps most important to the future of American foreign policy: managing China’s rise to great power status. Obama’s trip to Asia later this month will be an opportunity for him to lay out more clearly the United States’ vital interests in the region (and perhaps more important, what are not in its interests) and perhaps move closer to a deal on TPP. At the very least, it is long overdue that Obama made the Far East more than a rhetorical priority for his presidency.

The next two years will test the president’s patience. Congress will be a black hole for his domestic priorities. But Obama should feel liberated by the opportunity to use his presidential power for something other than vetoing bills from a Republican-dominated Congress. And having a few more GOP legislators mad at him shouldn’t be cause for changing the foreign policy course he’s set.

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