Second-Term Obama’s Foreign Policy

Freed from pressures of reelection, President Obama has the opportunity to chart a more daring foreign policy in his second term, taking chances for peace. But he will still face determined political opposition if he crosses powerful lobbies, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

After a campaign and election in which, at least as much as in most other election years, foreign policy took a back seat to domestic concerns, we — and the newly re-elected president — should take stock of the foreign policy significance of the electoral decision the American people just made.

Possibly the most significant implication is that the nation has dodged a bullet in the form of what would have been, given a different election outcome, a likely return of neoconservatives to positions of power and influence.

A supply helicopter approaches Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan’s Khowst province on Nov. 5, 2012. (Photo credit: U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Abram Pinnington)

Perhaps a President-elect Romney would have surprised us with his appointments, but the ideological pattern in his party and the identities of his advisers suggest otherwise. They suggest that future historians would be scratching their heads to explain how, so soon after the Iraq War, promoters of that enormously costly blunder would be back in position to inflict still more damage.

Lowering the risk of ideologically-driven disasters should be only part of the stock-taking. There are broader implications, having mostly to do with the incumbent president entering his second and final term.

Although Barack Obama is still young enough for us to expect from him vigorous leadership right up until January 2017, he will never be running for office again. That should lift much of the weight of the political millstone that drags down policy-making on foreign as well as domestic affairs.

It does not remove the millstone completely; domestic political opposition, sometimes of a puerile sort, is a factor even for second-term presidents as they try to strike deals and build coalitions. But a second term opens up distance from the kind of reductionism in the discussion of foreign policy that is part of any effort to win election or re-election.

The extra intrusion of domestic politics whenever hoped-for re-election is a factor impairs the making of sound foreign policy in at least three respects. First, it amplifies the influence of small but nonetheless assertive interests that are different from the U.S. national interest.

Second, it requires an oversimplification or dumbing-down of policy questions and thus leaves little room for care and precision in crafting strategies well-suited for a complicated world. Third, it encourages politicians to adhere to low-risk positions unlikely to generate political vulnerabilities before the next election. Such low-risk positions tend to lead to policies that are uncreative and offer little potential for positive breakthroughs.

What are some of the themes and directions that our second-term president should adopt to take advantage of having been relieved from the burdens of his last round of electoral politics?

One is suggested by an unfortunate tendency that the just-completed campaign season exhibited regarding foreign as well as domestic policy: the tendency to treat a vote for or against the incumbent president as if it were just an expression of approval or disapproval of whatever is going well or going poorly in the country or in the world.

Such an attitude mistakenly disregards the causes of the good news or bad news, disregards whether the alternative candidate would have done anything different or better, and disregards whether whatever we are happy or dissatisfied with is something any U.S. president can do much about.

The countervailing theme that the re-elected president ought to start emphasizing is that there are many unpleasant things going on in the world that neither he nor the United States as a whole can reshape to our satisfaction, that it is not the responsibility of the United States to correct all such situations around the world, and that attempts to assume such responsibility will often result in costly frustration and failure.

Making such observations while seeking re-election invites charges of wimpiness or of trying to avoid responsibility. But the observations are true.

A related theme is that the United States needs to pay more attention to the damage it inflicts, the anger it incurs and the resistance it engenders through many of its own actions — even well-intentioned ones — around the world and to how the effects redound negatively to U.S. national interests. This refers especially to the use of force in other countries.

Voicing any such theme amid an election campaign is political poison; it invites attacks from opponents for straying from the exceptionalist orthodoxy that America is never anything other than good and great. Now that Mr. Obama is no longer running against an opponent who conjures up mythical “apology tours,” he should not have to worry as much about such attacks.

In fact, the President can educate the public about the realities behind this theme without compromising at all the concept of America’s greatness, which involves stature and influence that does not require using a hammer to pound at every gnat that flies by.

As for more specific issues, recall how the presidential candidates responded when they were asked in the last debate to name the biggest foreign or security threat facing the United States (always a flawed question, in its requirement to single out one topic to the exclusion of others).

President Obama replied, “terrorism.” A safe answer, but now the President should foster a public discussion about the actual extent of terrorist threats to U.S. interests and about the costs and consequences of measures and policies aimed at countering those threats. The discussion should include material costs amid larger budgetary stringency, and it should include the broader consequences of killing individual suspected terrorists.

Governor Romney’s reply to the same question was “Iran.” The substantively appropriate response by his opponent would have been to ask how a second-rate power thousands of miles away could be considered the greatest threat facing the world’s sole superpower.

But any such questioning would have been politically risky, and so neither candidate rose above the demonization and alarmism in which public discussion in the United States about Iran has been mired. With the election over (and especially before Iran gets preoccupied with its own presidential election in the spring), the administration needs to get away from the demonization and alarmism.

Unfortunately, as Jacob Heilbrunn points out, Mr. Obama has boxed himself in somewhat with his categorical statements, matching those of Romney, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable. The good news is that there is definitely an opportunity for negotiating an agreement with Tehran that keeps Iran short of even deciding to build a nuclear weapon.

The administration needs to seize that opportunity, with all of the flexibility in negotiations that seizing it requires. The biggest impediment to doing so is likely to be resistance in Congress over the relaxing of sanctions.

The agitation over Iran has primarily been a project of the Israeli government, and this involves an area where the outcome of the election potentially makes a major difference. If Romney had won we would have a president who would outsource a major chunk of U.S. foreign policy to Benjamin Netanyahu, has already written off giving any attention to the defining conflict in the Middle East, and in hoping for re-election would have to keep thinking about what Sheldon Adelson will say the next time he sees him.

Mr. Obama has an opportunity to set another course, one far more attuned to the interests of the United States than to those of a foreign government. The opportunity stems not only from his status as a second-termer but also from encouraging signs in recent years (including the voice vote on Jerusalem at this year’s Democratic Party convention) that increasing numbers of people are coming to see the political force that has enforced unquestioning support to the policies of the Israeli government as being something of a naked emperor.

President Obama can claim a mandate of sorts for setting a new course in this regard. In addition to winning the votes of a large majority of American Jews, election-night polling showed that four-fifths of that segment of the electorate believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be negotiated, that the United States should take an active role accomplishing this, and that resolution of that conflict is an important U.S. national security interest.

The lobby that has impeded progress on this subject is, though weakened, still very much around. Opposing it will generate a lot of political ugliness. But the ugliness is not a good excuse for drifting along the old course. What comes closer to a legitimate excuse is the amount of presidential attention required amid fiscal cliffs and all the other demands on that attention.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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10 comments on “Second-Term Obama’s Foreign Policy

  1. Mad Angel on FB on said:

    wow..just what I said: ‘dodged a bullet’…….now let’s hold his feet to the fire…

  2. Rehmat on said:

    When it comes to America’s foreign policy – both Obama and Romney are twin-brothers born to a Zionist-morher. Obama is expected to tone-down his war rhetoric on Iran and Syria – but under powerful Jewish lobby groups – both within Democratic and Rublican parties – Obama will continue his efforts to bring pro-Israel regime changes in both Tehran and Damascus.

    As good old Helen Thomas told CNN’s Joy Behar that the White House cannot say NO to the Jewish Lobby.

    http://rehmat1.com/2011/02/19/helen-thomas-steps-on-lobbys-toes-again/

    • One of the first things I would do for my second term is to send your antisemitic rabid islamic ass back to iran where you can share your delusions with other medievalists.

      • For a Asiatic Khazarian Jew blaming truth tellers being anti-Semite??

        According the racist ADL Jew, Abraham Foxman, everything which exposes the evil Zionist regime such as NAM, Al-Manar TV, Press TV, Jews like Gilad Atzmon, Roger Tucker, Rabbi Weisman, etc. are all ‘anti-Semites’. But Zionist leader who are known to curse the fellow Jews more than the Jewish Bible – are “good Jews”.

        Here in Winnipeg – we had an ‘anti-Semitic’ poster which criticized the local rich Jewish corrupt officials and businessmen.

        http://rehmat1.com/2012/10/31/winnipegs-jew-hating-anti-corruption-poster/

        • So rehmatshit is a transplant from one of his beloved medieval paradises. I wonder why he does not go back….

  3. Frances in California on said:

    Why does no one want to admit that the Pentagon is the sock-puppet of the Criminal Oligarchy and if Obama even wants to stay alive, he must do what they want? Oh, that’s right – y’all have Weapons Futures!

  4. slouchybud on said:

    Palestinians are living in hell under Israeli style apartheid. It’s time to cut the umbilical cord and stop giving them US tax dollars. They have become suppressors/oppressors. They can’t be God’s “chosen people “, which I never believed anyway. I don’t think HE chooses any group over another. Israelis are not “victims” as believed.

  5. rosemerry on said:

    It is sad that the hopeful words written by Paul Pillar are based on so little evidence. Obama has shown NO SIGN of wanting real changes or trying at all to do anything to help the 99%,the environment, the Palestinians, the imprisoned Muslims shamefully incarcerated for supporting humanitarian projects in countries the USA has invaded, the poor people in his own country, the public schools…….

    • wah wah wah

      “Moderate” Palestinian Authority TV: Palestinian children created to fertilize the land with their blood

      Now, remember, these are the “moderates.” That is, of course, unless they have been taken over by ancient Aztecs, as this rhetoric would tend to imply. “Palestinian kids created as ‘fertilizer,’ to saturate the land with blood,” by Itamar Marcus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik for Palestinian Media Watch, January 31:

      Dying for the sake of “Palestine” as an ideal, even for Palestinian children and youth, remains part of Palestinian discourse.

      This week, official Palestinian Authority TV reported from a Fatah celebration in a refugee camp in Lebanon and chose to focus on the following slide shown at the celebration. Fatah’s message was that children are created so that their blood will be “fertilizer” to saturate the land:

      “Our children are our glory and honor,
      they were created to be fertilizer for the land of Palestine,
      and for our pure land to be saturated with their blood.”

      Earlier this month, a PA-Fatah celebration in Ramallah featured a performance with the same message. In front of senior PA leaders, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, young children and youth performed a song that included the following words:

      “My pure land, I shall saturate you with my blood…
      redeem you with my life.”

      Palestinian Media Watch has reported extensively on the PA’s teaching of children to die as Martyrs for “Palestine.” During the PA’s terror campaign (the “Intifada,” 2000-2005), the PA encouraged children to aspire for Martyrdom death as a central part of its message to children. Today, the message that children should die for “Palestine” is less prominent, but still found in PA schoolbooks and is expressed in cultural settings through song and dance. [...]

      PA TV narrator: “In the refugee camp Ein Al-Hilwe [in Lebanon], a rally was held in celebration of the [47th] anniversary [of Fatah]. A political symposium was also held on the occasion of the event.”

      Text on slide at event:
      “Our children are our honor and glory,
      they were created to be fertilizer for the land of Palestine,
      and for our pure land to be saturated with their blood”
      [PA TV (Fatah), Jan, 24, 2012]

      The following is an excerpt of a song performed by children at an event marking the 47th anniversary of the Fatah movement. PA leaders applaud kids sing “I shall saturate you with my blood… redeem you with my life”:

      Present at the ceremony: Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; Secretary General of the Presidential Office, Al-Tayeb Abd Al-Rahim; Secretary of the PLO Executive Council, Yasser Abd Rabbo; District Governor of Ramallah and El-Bireh Laila Ghannam; Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assaf.

      Song by the Raji’in group (children and youth):

      “How beautiful you are, my country
      The love in my heart for you is great
      You have brought up and educated
      generation after generation,
      You waited patiently and discovered your heroic children
      Oh, my pure land, I shall saturate you with my blood
      I shall live and die upon your green ground
      Your ground satiates us, your goodness satisfies us
      I shall redeem you with my life, oh my land
      Your embrace warms us
      Your ground satiates us, your goodness satisfies us
      I shall redeem you with my life, oh my land
      Your embrace warms us”
      Applause by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Secretary General of the President’s office Tayeb Abd Al-Rahim and PLO Secretary General Yasser Abd Rabbo.
      [Live PBC broadcast from Ramallah, PA TV (Fatah), Jan. 5, 2012]

  6. Hillary on said:

    As Mayer Amschel Rothschild’s wife (Gutle Schnaper )said on her deathbed in 1849.

    “If my sons did not want wars, there would be none.” Quote.

    This still holds true today.