Humbled by the Republicans’ landslide mid-term election victory, US President Barack Obama will now need to negotiate every minor detail of his domestic agenda with a confrontational Congress — at least until the next elections in 2012. Congress can obstruct Obama’s foreign policy as well, but this remains a domain where any US president “enjoys almost royal prerogatives,” to use Alexis de Tocqueville’s somewhat inflated description.
These prerogatives, however, have so far allowed Obama only to describe the world that he wants, not to bring it about. Former US president George W. Bush committed the cardinal sin of all fallen empires — that of overreach. The Obama alternative was supposed to be collective global security sustained by multilateral structures. Rather than containing rising powers such as China and India, they would be drawn into a civilized world order, one based on global governance and “smart diplomacy.”
Yet, instead of building such an order, Obama’s presidency has so far been a mighty struggle to stem the decline in US power. He has fallen desperately short in making real progress towards the Promised Land, in which the US lives in peace with the Muslim world, thanks to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement; brings about a nuclear-free planet (a noble, yet entirely delusional pledge); gets Russia’s support in addressing other global problems; contains China’s quest to translate its growing economic power into major strategic gains; ends its two diversionary wars in Muslim countries; and leads a solid international alliance to cut short Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Foreign policy has almost invariably been the refuge of US presidents hit by mid-term defeats. However, foreign policy cannot be detached from its domestic foundations altogether. Can a president shown to be hesitant in the Middle East and Afghanistan even before his mid-term setback muster the authority needed to advance his global vision after such a domestic debacle?
One should hope so, if only because no better alternative to Obama’s vision is in view. And now, with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Obama might not be able to fulfill major foreign-policy promises, including ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a key item in the president’s vision for reinvigorating the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Should Congress not ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, Obama’s most tangible foreign-policy achievement so far, the entire inspection system for nuclear arms might collapse.
However, with respect to most other foreign-policy issues, the question is one of presidential leadership. Obama’s problem lies not in his vision for the US and the world, but in his deficient efforts to move from theory to practice.
Nevertheless, despite the new Congress’s overwhelmingly pro-Israel cast, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should not assume that the Republicans will stymie Obama if he pushes resolutely for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. After all, it was a Republican who produced the Reagan Plan, calling on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders. Thus, however much they despised former US president Bill Clinton, the Republicans were prepared to allow him the glory of being a Middle East peacemaker, believing that any agreement reached with the Palestinians at the 2000 Camp David Summit was in the US’ interest.