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Obama’s Foreign Policy: How will ‘Constrainment’ work in 2016?

By J Brooks Spector 12 August 2013

Despite the usual view, US elections are almost always about domestic issues. This time around, the Obama legacy in foreign affairs may well matter, depending on what happens in the next two to three years, and which politicians are in the mix of would-be candidates. J. BROOKS SPECTOR offers a preliminary guess at what it may mean.

It is less than a year since the United States underwent a national election. Nevertheless, the commentariat, a growing clutch of political analysts and quite a few politicians, are already gearing up for the 2016 presidential race. Depending on how they have reacted to the presumed “Tea Party-ization” of their party, its mental architecture and its emotional temperature, Republicans are already trying to get behind potential candidates such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie (he’s already had stomach surgery to make himself a more svelte-looking candidate by 2016, as well as a Republican that even Democrats can love), or Kentucky senator Rand Paul (following in at least some of his father’s neo-isolationist footprints). Meanwhile, Democrats are trying hard to suss out whether Hillary Rodham Clinton will actually decide that this is her last, and best, chance at breaking through that glass ceiling, or will a younger claimant – Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, or Democratic Party’s national chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, for example – slide in ahead of her at the final tally?

Regardless of who gets the nominations, as things stand now Republicans will inevitably be campaigning on some variation of “time for a change” or “we have to get the country moving again”. Democrats will be in the position of defending what could become a problematic Obama legacy, even as they advocate for the extension of the current president’s policies or the still-unmet necessity for the adoption of his still-outstanding proposals.

In 2008, Barack Obama positioned himself as a foreign policy-oriented candidate who would end the two fruitless, pointless wars bequeathed him by his predecessor and bring nation-building back home where a generation’s backlog of activism awaited. There was universal health care, immigration reform and so much more to attend to on an urgent basis. Of course, the unpredictability of life and politics being what they are, the run-up to and then the early stages of the first term of the Obama presidency ended up almost entirely consumed by the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. (This is the crisis that commentators like economic historian Brandon de Long are now calling “The Little Depression”, to distinguish it from 1929 and its aftermath.)

Most foreign policy discussions quickly took second place to congressional debates over the most effective emergency economic recovery measures to rescue the country’s financial system. In fact, back in December 2008 this author argued in The Cape Times that the best thing a new Obama administration could do for Africa was address the global financial crisis so as to restore global demand for Africa’s primary export commodities. And that argument could easily be extended to virtually every American relationship internationally, as the overall global economy (with the exception of China and some smaller middle tier economies) was sliding into a prolonged recession. With the president’s policy of lowering troop commitments in Iraq, and that temporary surge (followed by a drawdown as well) in Afghanistan, by the time the economy had been stabilized, although not fully re-inflated, the public had effectively lost interest in the fact that the country had been engaged in warfare in South Asia for nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, efforts to build a warmer relationship with Russia under President Dmitri Medvedev seemed to be gaining traction, despite ongoing disputes over Iran, North Korea and a US-constructed Central European missile defence system. That is until Medvedev was replaced by his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, and his more assertive nationalist, even authoritarian, orientations and policies. Concurrently, the Obama administration was weathering a series of trade disputes with China, even as it began directing more and more of its foreign policy energies to reorient the machinery of its policy and defence thinking and military strength in a pivot towards East Asia and a rising China, and away from that Bush-era preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan.

A series of speeches in Cairo, Accra and Washington attempted to situate the Obama administration on the right side of both history and demographics. Obama appealed to the rising tide of young Asians, Africans and Middle Easterners to throw off those outworn political arrangements holding back more egalitarian, democratic futures.

Although a lasting Middle East peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians seemed an ocean away, it was no further away than it had been for years. Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remained troubling, but here, too, the challenges were obvious extensions of past circumstances, rather than new developments. And the slow, grinding pursuit of Osama bin Laden and many of his subordinates seemed to vindicate Obama’s choice to move away from the massed military efforts in South Asia of the Bush administration. (Although the euphemistically termed “collateral damage” as a result of the increased deployment of drone aircraft in the region began to cause real problems for the US in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, where most of the drone strikes actually occurred.) Overall, if there was a unifying thread to the Obama foreign policy approach, it was the word “constrainment”.

This term, first applied to Obama’s foreign policy by two reluctantly approving internationalist activist, Republican-style commentators – neocons Douglas Feith and Seth Cropsey – seemed to be an unexpected understanding that not everything was possible for America to do on its own. Feith and Cropsey seemed to be saying that Obama may actually have figured out a reasonable pathway forward between isolationism and riding off on more international crusades than could be supported with the tools at hand. Instead, sometimes, some things were better left alone and other issues should be handled by “leading from the rear” (such as letting multilateral institutions take the lead, as in Libya). This was better than aiming to be the indispensable nation for all things and all ways. It was, in fact, a doctrine that was in keeping with the straitened financial times of the government, the continuing squabble with Congress over future budget cuts, the deepening impact of the sequester on defence spending in particular, and a continuing weak economic recovery, with unemployment hovering still around 7.5%.

But the precipitous decline in US-Russia relations since Putin began his new term as president, the continuing surge of Chinese influence around the world under its new leader, Xi Jinping and, above all, the ongoing unravelling in the Arab world (in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and probably even in Iraq) have all conspired to squeeze the Obama vision. Until recently, it seemed it would be a fairly easy transition from “hyperpower-dom” (a phrase first popularized by former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine to note the new geopolitical reality following the collapse of the Soviet alternative) to an increasingly multipolar world with sources of influence beyond military power.

It would be rather easy for Obama’s political opponents – in Congress, in the media, in that twitchy, angry social media space – to group all these difficulties together along with several other issues. There is the yet unresolved Arab-Israeli peace, North Korea, Iran, rumbling insurgencies in West Africa and the continuing repercussions from the exposes of the NSA’s globally pervasive, vacuum cleaner-like approach to electronic data collection and whistle-blower (or traitor) Edward Snowden’s gift of asylum in Russia. These have now, collectively, and fairly suddenly, come together to make foreign policy a potentially gloomy place to fight for the Obama presidential legacy battle, if one is a Democrat, that is. This could be true going into the prelims for the 2016 presidential election, but it could be just as true in the congressional election of 2014 where the Democrats may well lose their hold on the Senate because of a disproportionate number of veteran Democratic incumbents facing difficult re-election fights or retiring.

Yes, it is certainly possible there will be real progress between Israel and the Palestinians. That Egypt’s political progress will swerve away from military-managed authoritarianism. That the Syrian civil war will come to an end on terms that end the Assad family’s hold on the country without leading to a fundamentalist Islamist regime in its stead. That Xi Jinping’s China may become so caught up in meeting expectations from rising domestic demand for products and a more open politics that its 21st century version of pushing for “a place in the sun” mellows. That Putin’s Russia may find a way to cooperate more closely with the US on Syria, Iran and North Korea. And even that Russia comes to an accommodation with that thoroughly mistrusted initiative to install a missile defence system in Middle Europe. And the Obama administration may yet figure out a way to give the Putin administration the respect it so evidently craves, without caving on the human rights issues so important to the international NGO community and many of Obama’s supporters in the US. But all of these will be hard slogs and none of them is guaranteed to go the president’s way. Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to face obdurate opposition from the Republican Party led House of Representatives on immigration reform (itself a kind of ultimate foreign-policy-meets-domestic-issues knot), the federal budget and the implementation of Obamacare, all limiting the Obama administration’s freedom of movement and its ability to claim policy wins.

But given all this, at least as seen from today’s vantage point, foreign policy may well be the Achilles heel for any Democratic would-be successor to Obama. In practical terms, this could mean difficulties for Hillary Clinton who, if she decides to run in 2016, as a former secretary of state, would almost certainly have to explain her readiness for the presidency and her skills, experience and competence in terms of her record in foreign policy.

On the other hand, if by late 2015 US unemployment has fallen to under 7% (and it looks like it will continue dropping); if exports into markets like China begin to grow significantly as Chinese demand for American products spurts upward; if domestic housing prices rise and the growing domestic production of energy keeps fuel costs stable; and if Obamacare begins to deliver its promised benefits from universal care and restraints on health care cost, then a would-be Democratic successor to Barack Obama can make a strong domestic case in the next presidential election.

In that situation, virtually any perceived foreign policy problem, save for a major new war, will not be of real consequence. A candidate can plausibly argue that it’s a tough world out there and bad things happen, with or without America’s involvement. That, plus the trends in the demographic geography of the country, such as the rise in Hispanic voting populations and consequent increased support for Democrats nationally in states that heretofore were seen as Republican strongholds, all would seem to make 2016 a rough road for a Republican who chooses to fight the election over a contested vision about America’s place in the world, instead of how best to continue nation-building right at home. Given the mixed economic messages still likely to be in the forefront in 2014, it is likely the congressional elections may be a bellwether of sentiment about where, or if, foreign policy factors will be seriously in the mix the next time around.

The biggest fear Republicans have remains the president’s ability to put a major foreign policy win or two on the scoreboard in the next two years. Foreign policy is the president’s preserve constitutionally, even if the budgetary aspects of it remain in the grip of Congress. A real peace accord – even a limited one – over the West Bank would be a major coup that would reverberate globally and the iconic picture of a handshake in bright sunlight on the White House lawns would be worth precious points in the polls. Add a nuclear accord over Iran or North Korea and who knows how high the favourables would go for Obama and his would-be successor. The Daily Maverick will be watching it all, reading the polls, speaking with the experts and probably consulting the auguries and tea leaves as well. DM

Read more:

  • Obama’s feisty news conference, at Washington Post
  • · Leading from Behind: Third Time a Charm?, in The American Interest
  • Washington, D.C. blog (Tom Switzer), in The Spectator
  • The Obama Doctrine Defined, in Commentary
  • “Hard on Obama”, Steve Coll’s review of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat by Vali Nasr, in the New York Review of Books
  • What is the conservative alternative to Obama’s foreign policy? Jennifer Rubin (the paper’s “house conservative”) column, at Washington Post
  • Foreign Policy Guiding Principles, on The White House website
  • “The United States and Africa in the Obama Era: New wine in old bottles, old bottles for a new beverage – Or a new label on an old brew?”, at the Centre for Policy Studies

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Marine Corps Base-Camp Pendleton in California, August 7, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

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