Liberating Foreign Policy in the Second Term

Paul 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. 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 vigorous leadership from him 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 for 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.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencySanctionsNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Did William Kristol Cost Romney the Election?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Flickr: Gage SkidmoreIn the end it wasn't even close. President Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the swing states and the Democratic party retained control of the Senate. The results should be a reality check for the GOP--if it's interested in realism. With unemployment exceeding 7 percent, enthusiasm for Obama personally is tepid, but he appears to have created a new multiracial Democratic party that could provide the basis for a kind of Rooseveltian electoral coalition in future elections. He is now only the second Democratic president following World War II to win a second term. His legacy, however, already looks to be far more influential than Bill Clinton's.

Obama will be able to consolidate his health-care victory from his first term as well as the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reform. Those are two big victories for him. The GOP has also lost the chance to alter the composition of the Supreme Court--Obama may get up to three nominations in his second term. The looming fiscal cliff could also break his way. The fact that the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2012 gives him a strong hand in negotiations with the GOP. Republicans would be foolish to underestimate Obama's resolve--fresh off his election, he can campaign across the country for his version of tax and deficit reduction rather than remain stuck in Washington, a Ronald Reagan model that his surrogates are indicating he intends to follow. But another factor is that Obama, says Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus, is more seasoned and ready to compromise:

No matter how strong his base of Democratic voters, Obama needed compromise-loving independents to stick with him too.

And Obama has spent plenty of time in the last few weeks talking with Clinton, a supremely pragmatic president who regularly enraged his party's liberal base whenever he thought a lunge to the right might help him pass legislation through a Republican-held Congress.

Nevertheless, second term presidencies are usually a disaster. What might trip up Obama? Foreign affairs. He has boxed himself into something of a corner on Iran and the possiblity that he will bomb Iran should not be discounted--a move that could trigger fresh upheaval in the Middle East and send oil prices soaring. It's also the case that China's economy is faltering. So is Europe's. Fresh blows to the halting American recovery cannot be precluded.

What about the GOP? It's soul-searching time. A good case could be made that the author, in many ways, of the GOP's problems is William Kristol. Kristol saddled John McCain with Sarah Palin. He's the biggest backer of Paul Ryan, a Washington creature, who is being talked up as a potential presidential candidate in 2016--when was the last time a Congressman won the presidency? And Kristol, of course, has dominated foreign policy debate in the GOP by ceaselessly purveying neocon malarkey about American militarism abroad, but Romney's bluster about a new American century went nowhere. Had Romney shunned the neocon bluster and campaigned as a Massachusetts moderate, he would have posed a much greater threat to Obama than he did.

The temptation, of course, will be to blame Romney, and Romney alone, for the defeat. This is nonsense. Yes, Romney was always an unpromising candidate, but of the Republican primary candidates Romney was the most formidable. The campaign he waged was far superior to John McCain's in 2008. But ultimately the positions that Romney was forced to adopt undid his campaign. He never really recovered from pandering to a base that never fully accepted him. From calling himself "severely conservative" to the Todd Akin disaster, Romney was crippled by the radicalism of the GOP. Texas Senator John Cornyn observed:

It’s clear that with our losses in the Presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party.  While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight.  Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.

Ultimately, the problems afflicting the party are so obvious that they barely require enumeration, from the neocon control of the foreign-policy debate to moralistic flapdoodle about women. This should have been an election that the GOP had a strong shot at winning. Its self-destructive tendencies mean that it didn't. The bottom line is that the Karl Rove model for creating a Republican majority that he boasted about in 2004 is broken. There is no evangelical coalition that can put the GOP over the top. On the contrary, it almost singlehandedly destroyed the GOP's hopes of capturing the Senate. The GOP can reboot or it can follow the model of the Democratic party that lost three straight presidential elections before turning to Bill Clinton in 1992. What will it choose?

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Demands and Negotiating Positions

Paul Pillar

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas received attention the other day with a remark about the possible return of Palestinian Arabs to Israel. He was asked in an interview whether he wanted to return to the town in the Galilee region where he grew up and from which he had been driven as a 13-year-old during the war in 1948 that accompanied the establishment of Israel. Abbas replied that he would like to visit the town but not live there. Although he described himself as a refugee, he referred to the boundary that lasted until a later Arab-Israeli war in 1967 and said that Palestine is on one side of that border and Israel is on the other.

The comment, despite being an apparently unscripted answer to an interview question, was seized on in various quarters as a significant concession on the longstanding issue of “right of return.” Some Israelis hopeful of meaningful peace negotiations, including President Shimon Peres, lauded Abbas's remark. Abbas's Palestinian rivals in Hamas denounced his comment, saying he had no right to make such a “concession” on behalf of the Palestinian people. Both sorts of reactions vastly overstated the significance of the remark.

Abbas hasn't really made any formal concessions on this issue. The official Palestinian position is still that there is a right of return, but when commenting at other times about the right of return Abbas has shown himself to be realistic. He has observed that if all the Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now numbering several million, were to return to Israel that would effectively destroy Israel, and he has no desire to do that, wanting instead to live alongside Israel. He has also appropriately questioned how many Palestinians would want to go back to live in their old home towns. Many say they would in principle, but if the reality would be to live as a minority in the Jewish state, most would have preferences similar to Abbas's own.

What the reactions to Abbas's comment illustrate, besides an overplaying of the comment itself, is a common tendency to confuse a position maintained for bargaining purposes with some kind of intractable bottom line demand. Some elements may have an interest in promoting such confusion—such as in this case Hamas, which tried to use the issue as a stick with which to beat Abbas. Partly because of such promotion, others may genuinely but mistakenly believe that a negotiating position is a rigid demand.

In any conflict with multiple major issues in dispute—and that is certainly true of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—it behooves each side not to make concessions even on issues on which it is willing to concede until and unless it gets something in return on other issues. Everyone concerned has long realized that a reasonable resolution of the issue of right of return would be some formula that lets Palestinians claim the right has been recognized but that involves only a symbolically small number—no more than a few thousand—actually moving to Israel, perhaps with monetary compensation provided to the rest. Palestinian leaders, however, would be foolish to offer such a formula without getting anything on other issues of concern to them, including borders and the status of Jerusalem.

Similar situations arise all the time, including on other matters of concern to Israel. Why should Hamas, for example, make unilateral concessions involving something such as recognition of Israel if it does not get in return something as basic as recognition of Hamas? On that all-preoccupying matter involving Iran's nuclear program, the Iranians have given ample indication of flexibility on restricting their enrichment of uranium and on much else. But they would be foolish to make unilateral concessions with no prospect of getting anything in return on matters of importance to them.

When someone seems to be adhering to a position that ought not to be a vital interest to them, we should not make the mistake of interpreting this as a mark of obduracy and unreasonableness. More likely it means they are willing to bargain.

TopicsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranPalestinian territories

How Romney Won the Election

Jacob Heilbrunn

In retrospect everyone agreed that it was inevitable that Mitt Romney would win the 2012 presidential election. Barack Obama had been unable to overcome high unemployment figures and his lackluster performance in the first debate, which sowed fears that he wasn't really interested in returning for a second term. His concession speech was graceful but his supporters were in disbelief. Once again a Democrat had failed to win a second presidential term. Bill Clinton's record of being the only postwar president to accomplish that feat was intact.

On the Democratic side rumors immediately began circulating about who would run in 2016. Why had Obama blown it was the big story. But some were beginning to say that Obama had not bungled matters as much as Romney had waged a tough and fierce campaign, persuading voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania to abandon Obama at the last minute. In the end, Romney had been able to capitalize on a vague but pervasive fear that America's best days were behind it and that the country was headed for the skids. It was once again time for a change.

Meanwhile, the Republicans were giddy with success. Romney immediately announced that he would work in as bipartisan a manner as possible. His principal goal, he said, was to restore American leadership at home and abroad. He would not intervene directly in the negotiations between President Obama and the Congress over averting the fiscal cliff, but urged them to reach a compromise. Change, he said, was coming to America.

Will this scenario happen? The odds are slim. The media has all but written off Romney. But Howard Kurtz, writing in the Daily Beast, observes

If Obama somehow manages to lose, it will be a stunning defeat for the nation’s first African-American president. But it will also be a crushing blow for the punditocracy that headed into Election Day filled with confidence that Obama had it in the bag. And Fox News won’t let the mainstream media hear the end of it.

No, it won't. Forget those who claim that this isn't a significant election. Fiddlesticks. The truth is that it represents two fundamentally different governing philosophies when it comes to the economy. And it will have a direct impact on the future of the Supreme Court. If Obama fails to win--and the likelihood is that he will achieve a clear victory--it would be a severe blow to the Democratic party, at least until the 2014 midterms when an increasingly fickle electorate might seek revenge on the GOP. For the most fundamental question may ultimately not be as much about governing philosophies as about the structural problems that America faces. Is either party equipped to confront them?

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

National Security Begins at Home

Paul Pillar

In the summer of 1919 the U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps sent a convoy of 81 vehicles across the United States, from Washington, D.C. to Oakland, California (and then by ferry to San Francisco). The operation was intended partly to determine what was and was not possible at the time regarding long-distance movement within the country. Almost all of the roads the convoy used beyond Illinois were unpaved. The convoy logged 230 incidents that required it to stop because of accidents, breakdowns, extrication from mud, and repair of wooden bridges that it broke. The average speed was six miles per hour, and the trip took two months.

Participating as an observer for the War Department was a brevet lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower. The experience impressed on Eisenhower the importance of a well-developed highway system for military movements as well as civilian commerce. He was later able to observe, as the victorious allied commander in the defeat of Germany in World War II, what an important part the Autobahn system played in the defense and vitality of Germany.

As president, Eisenhower pushed for the development of a network of high-speed, limited-access highways in the United States. The federal government had already played a major role in development of the nationwide system of roads as it had developed up to the 1950s, through legislation including the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Eisenhower signed in 1956 a new Federal Aid Highway Act, which provided for the federal government to fund 90 percent of the construction of a new network of expressways. That network is now officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Military convoys constitute only a tiny fraction of the traffic on today's interstates (although the ability of the military to transport personnel and materiel quickly from one part of the country to another surely is still important to national defense). A modern and robust domestic infrastructure has a further link to national security, however, that is even more important: the strength and efficiency of the U.S. economy is the ultimate foundation for being able to provide for the security and defense of the nation. American politicians play lip service to this link from time to time, usually to add rhetorical support to some other point they wish to make about economic issues. But the essence of that link has not been sufficiently internalized and appreciated to the point of being fully reflected in budgets and policies.

Some appreciation for the impact of the interstate highway system—which is just one example of the subject at hand—can be gained from reflecting on the fact that almost 70 percent of the tonnage of freight shipped in the United States, and about three-quarters of the value of that freight, travels by road. Even small inefficiencies in road transport thus can have a large negative, nationwide impact on costs and productivity. Congestion delays cost a lot of money. Understanding the difference does not require going back to that 1919 Army convoy that struggled with muddy roads and rickety bridges. People of my age, old enough to remember what long-distance road travel was like in the pre-interstate-highway days of the 1950s, can understand.

An explicit connection with national defense was made with some other programs during Eisenhower's presidency that did not directly concern the Pentagon's budget. A major piece of legislation in 1958 that provided federal aid to all levels of education was called the National Defense Education Act. Enacted amid alarm over the USSR's launch of the first Sputnik the previous year, a major rationale for the program was to produce more mathematicians, scientists and engineers who would work on overtaking the Soviets in military-related areas where they appeared to have gotten ahead. But even if the act had not yielded a single additional American rocket designer, the boost given to better utilization of the nation's human capital through better educational opportunities helped to strengthen the U.S. economy of the future and as such was again in the interest of national security.

The damage from Superstorm Sandy is great enough that we are seeing now a bit of post-Sputnik-like concern about the need for additional investment in domestic infrastructure to protect the citizenry from future harm. The threat in this case is not from some terrorist group or rogue state but instead from natural disasters, exacerbated by change in the earth's climate. Just as there are multiple ways, not mutually exclusive, for dealing with a threat from something like terrorism (mitigate underlying risk factors, erect defenses, etc.), so too are there multiple appropriate responses to the type of threat represented by major storms. The underlying problem of human-induced climate change unfortunately—as reflected in this year's political campaigns—has received pitifully insufficient attention. Even if it had received more, the climatic changes already in train make defenses against future disasters important. And so, appropriately, ideas are being advanced for public works projects, for example, to help protect New York City from storm surges the next time anything like Sandy hits.

Such measures are expensive, and cost immediately becomes a deterrent. But here are two considerations in thinking about this problem. First, we are talking about national security, in the most literal and central sense. What can be more of the essence of national security than the protection of the citizenry, in the places where they live and work, from physical harm and severe disruption of their daily lives? And what should receive higher priority in public policy than national security, properly defined?

A second consideration whenever cost comes up is to do some comparisons. One proposal, for example, to construct a storm surge barrier across the Verrazano Narrows at the entrance to New York harbor would cost several billion dollars. But as proponents of the idea note, it would be substantially less than the cost of a single aircraft carrier.

Or compare the cost of such projects to the costs of damage from Sandy. It is still far too early, of course, to expect an accurate figure for that, but people whose business is to make such estimates are talking in the range of $45-60 billion. The New York City comptroller estimates that his city has been losing $200 million in halted economic activity alone each day since the storm.

A rational cost-benefit analysis ought to make more attention to this side of national security a no-brainer. It isn't, largely for two reasons, both of which have become more entrenched since Eisenhower's time. One is ideological antipathy to the idea that there are important things to do collectively that do not have to do with the military or with U.S. activities overseas but that are necessary to strengthen and secure the American economy and society, and that government, including the federal government, is essential for doing some of those things.

The other impediment is a diffusion of the concept of national security. We have lost sight of the core sense of securing the daily lives of Americans at home. We have substituted a notion of national security that has been broadened without apparent limit to embrace threats that in fact barely threaten ourselves, foreign conflicts in which the United States has no real stake, and nation-building in other people's nations rather than our own. This notion is a warping of the meaning of national security and is a huge distraction from much else that ought to concern us. It also is very, very costly.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsEconomic DevelopmentDefenseIdeologyGrand Strategy RegionsUnited States