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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Will President Obama Be A One-Termer?


Obama is not a radical, he is -- and always has been -- a political moderate. It is not inconceivable that the way in which our Presidential campaigns are presently structured makes it impossible for a "radical" -- at least a progressive radical -- to ever be elected to the highest office in the land. When was the last time we had a progressive President? JFK? He was a Cold Warrior to the hilt. FDR? Maybe, but he had a Great War and a Great Depression, allowing him to enact radical procedures. The fact that Obama is not a radical, perhaps, is why so many young progressives (and Comedy Central show hosts) nowadays are so profoundly disappointed that the President didn't deliver on his "Hope" and "Change" promises. Their hearts were broken; they  believed.

Moderating the Bush Overreach

Nowhere is President Obama more moderate in his thinking than on foreign policy, his military policy to be precise. One might argue that Obama's foreign policy is somewhat neoconservative in nature. Libya, for example, falls somewhere well within the liberal internationalist-neoconservative continuum; Obama approved a 30,000 troop Bush-ish surge in Afghanistan; Obama tacked right on Guantanamo. Obama has also kept Bush's Secretary of Defense -- Robert Gates -- for most of his first term in office, creating a continuity in America's military policy between the two presidencies, a particularly bitter thorn in the hearts of progressives. There are, curiously, very few short-term political advantages in creating this continuity. Neoconservatives will never -- ever -- accept a Barack Obama. And this continuity in American foreign policy with Bush, 43 greatly alienates liberal internationalists. And so, in essence, Obama is pursuing a military policy in which he gets next to zero political advantage -- not from isolationists, not from liberal internationalists, not from neoconservatives, and not even from many realists. Only some realists, those who believe that in the long-term historical perspective, would  such a continuity be considered wise.

Is that Obama's true constituency? The CFR and the editors at Foreign Affairs magazine?

The Comparisons to Bush, 41

This "moderation" in foreign policy could be politically fatal to Obama. Realism doesn't really have a political constituency in these United States. "Realpolitik," to most Americans, reeks of Bismark and Richelieu and, worse, Darth Vader. How many "realist"-based blogs, websites, think tanks,and  television shows are there in the United States -- and what are their numbers? The neocons have Commentary and The Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal Opinion page and, to a degree, Fox News; the liberal internationalists have -- after a fashion -- The Nation and MSNBC, and now, quite possibly, Current TV and sometimes the New Republic and a lot of the Op-Ed page of the Times. But where is the pro-realpolitik cable station in prime time? Where is the Kissinger loving journal of opinion? Exactly.

Not in these United States. You see, America is an idealistic nation. Neoconservatism and liberal internationalism both have deep philosophical roots in American history. Even isolationism -- idealistic in its pragmatism -- has roots in Andrew Jackson and Taft. But realism is viewed as something vaguely foreign, Old European, alien to the American organism. Kissinger, the well-travelled George Bush, 41 and now Obama all have the taint of having seen the worls at large and drawing pragmatic lessons that they use in dealisg with it.

Already we are seeing a growing isolationism in the Republican party, much of it opportunist. It is only natural: Clinton -- flush with a budget surplus -- was a liberal internationalist; Bush, 43 was a relentless neocon; Obama -- with a vast deficit -- is a neocon-realist mix: next up -- isolationism! The Republican debate last week highlighted a seismic shift in foreign policy of the GOP, away from neoconservative adventurism. Perhaps that is why "hawks" are pressuring Speaker Bohner not to end America's involvement in our neoconnish-liberal internationalist war in Libya. The upcoming Libya vote in the House might just be a Rorschach test on the growing influence of isolationism in contemporary American politics.

Now, the reports that Obama is going to move conservatively on reducing troop strength in Afghanistan. From Joe Klein:

"The slow pace of withdrawal–I was hoping that nearly all combat units would be out by the end of next year–has everything to do with recent events in Pakistan. There has been a sharp turn toward anti-American Islamist militancy since the Osama Bin Laden raid. General Ashfaq Kayani–the last of the Pakistani Army’s American-trained and American-sympathizing leaders–is on the ropes and is likely to replace in a top-down military coup in the coming months by a more Islamist successor (although perhaps not an outright Islamic extremist). This means that Pakistan will not only continue to support the Afghan Taliban, but will probably increase that support.

The slower departure sends a message to the Pakistanis–that we’re not going to do what we did last time and bug out precipitously, leaving Afghanistan as a playing field in their Great Game against the Indians. It also gives the Afghan National Army more time to establish itself as a convincing anti-Taliban force. This is not a far-fetched proposition, by the way: the ANA is 90% non-Pashtun, a nearly-direct descendent of the old Northern Alliance that lost the civil war to the Taliban in the 1990s. (The various Taliban factions are almost entirely Pashtun.) My guess is that the ANA will be more than willing to continue that civil war after we go, and more than able to keep the country now that it has US equipment, training and logistical support (as opposed to the spotty Indian, Iranian and Russian support it received in the past).

If the Pakistanis are convinced of that–convinced that their Taliban can not win–they may be more willing to allow the Taliban to make some sort of a deal with the Karzai government. Remarkably–and outrageously–they have been blocking such a deal so far.

So make no mistake: this decision has more to do with the new, dangerous turn in Pakistan than it does with events in Afghanistan.
Perfectly understandable and even politically wise. But disappointing nonetheless to those of us who ask: why are we in Afghanistan?

If Obama resembles any recent American President in foreign policy, he calls to mind Bush the Elder. Both Presidents respected the United Nations (and both believe in diplomacy), both Presidents have seen the world and aggressively support world order, and both President's believe in coalition-building and multilateralism when undertaking foreign adventures. Is that all they have in common?
Bush was a one-termer, mainly because he focused on a moderate, realist foreign policy as the economy became a major  issue (sound familiar?). The economy became such an issue that Bush the welder's successor, Bill Clinton, kept the mantra "It's the Economy, Stupid." Sounds like Romney, circa 2011.

Is a single term also the fate of our current President? To be well-remembered by the CFR and the editors of Foreign Affairs and the American Historians of the Future, but unburied and unsung in the political present?

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