Can Obama become a foreign policy president?

Ed Ross Contributor
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President Obama departed Washington, D.C. last week for a 10-day visit to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan following the Democratic Party’s historic defeat in the 2010 midterm elections. It’s a routine foreign trip, like others the well-traveled president has made since he took office, unless it marks a new beginning of President Obama’s personal involvement in foreign policy.

It’s not uncommon for presidents, when opposition-party majorities in one or both houses of Congress stymie their domestic policy agendas, to spend more time on foreign policy. It’s the domain of presidential power least fettered by Congress. President Obama can use the second half of his term to build a list of foreign policy accomplishments he can run on in the 2012 election as Republicans seek to dismantle his domestic policy agenda at home. There’s only one problem — he must record some extraordinary foreign policy accomplishments for that strategy to work.

The president by no means will abandon his domestic policy objectives. He feels too strongly about them. He’ll reach out to Republicans much as he did before the election. He’ll tell them by his actions, if not his words, that he expects them to compromise, and that they can expect that he expects them to compromise. Soon, however, he will grow frustrated by his inability to do what he set out to do — fundamentally transform America. Pressing foreign policy issues will both demand his attention and provide him with opportunities.

Nevertheless, despite his considerable foreign travel as president, Barack Obama is not a foreign policy president. He lacks the background and instinct for it many of his predecessors had. He has demonstrated neither a passion for nor a great interest in it. Rather, he ran for office on a domestic policy agenda and has focused the overwhelming majority of his attention on domestic issues — both those that required urgent attention and those that did not.

On the international stage, with the exception of his September 23, 2010 United Nations speech, he has apologetically expressed his view that the United States should strive less to be the world’s preeminent political, economic, and military power and more to be a cooperative member of the world community. That’s hardly a leadership style or a foreign policy doctrine that’s likely to result in extraordinary foreign policy achievements.

Beyond Obama’s foreign policy skills are the issues themselves, which aren’t amenable to much progress during the next two years. For the United States in the second half of Obama’s term in office, the top foreign policy issues include the ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Middle East peace, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the international community’s growing appetite for global governance and the international redistribution of wealth.

With regard to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Democrats will still control the Senate, but a two-thirds vote is necessary to ratify what many believe is a fatally flawed treaty. It links missile defense to offensive weapons, it prohibits the U.S. from converting missile silos and missile-launching submarines into launch platforms for defensive missiles, and it creates an unaccountable commission that will allow unelected bureaucrats to change definitions and agreed statements in the treaty. Chances for ratification in its current form are remote; and Russia is unlikely to agree to the modifications that the U.S. Senate would require.

On Middle East peace, President Obama made a serious misstep early on in his administration and wasted valuable time when he fell into the trap of insisting that Israel freeze settlement construction in the West Bank. Eventually the Israelis agreed to a ten-month freeze, but the Palestinians waited for nine months before agreeing to direct talks, then they insisted that the Israelis extend the freeze, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to do. Even if Israel extends the freeze, however, without Hamas as part of the negotiations, they are doomed yet again to failure.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pose major foreign policy challenges for President Obama. So long as he insists on setting dates when the United States will begin departing both countries, he only prolongs the military conflicts and weakens our position in negotiations, inhibiting the political solutions that are necessary for long-term peace. This is the one area where a simple policy statement could make a big difference and gain him greater Republican support. Even then, Americans will become increasingly impatient with our involvement in these two wars.

With Iran, the way forward is clear. China and Russia will not participate in effective sanctions. Unless the president is willing to invoke a credible threat to use military force, the U.S. will not dissuade Iran from its drive to obtain nuclear weapons. The president has not begun, however, to take the necessary steps in the United Nations or with our allies that would make the threat of military force credible; and there is nothing to suggest that Mr. Obama intends to do so or that he possesses the brinksmanship skills John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan possessed.

The international community’s growing appetite for global governance on everything from climate change to the global economy to the redistribution of wealth is an agenda President Obama has expressed some sympathy for. Mr. Obama, however, will find little support among members of Congress or the American people for the kinds of concessions the international community seeks. Identifying himself with its demands on the United States will only undercut his reelection bid.

There are numerous other difficult issues that President Obama must deal with — such as how to deal with Africa, China and Russia. We can expect that he will spend increasingly more time and energy in the foreign policy arena as he is frustrated at home, but he is unlikely to achieve extraordinary success doing so.

What is more likely to happen is best summed up by the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson in his November 4, 2010, Ricochet post: “Just as Obama now seems petulant and miffed that voters did not appreciate his new statist agenda and impatiently and ignorantly pushed back, so too abroad Obama will become disappointed with the world that did not rally to his singular outreach, but instead interpreted his reset diplomacy as weakness to be exploited rather than as magnanimity to be appreciated.”

Foreign policy may indeed prove to be the last refuge of a diminished president, and unless President Obama acts boldly and decisively in cooperation with Republicans in foreign affairs, America is not likely to fare any better internationally than it has domestically under his leadership.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.