A Foreign-Policy President

February 16, 2010 Region: Americas

A Foreign-Policy President

As Obama faces political trouble at home, he is increasingly turning his attention abroad—and chalking up some impressive results.

With Senator Evan Bayh's announcement that he won't run for another term, the fortunes of the Democratic Party look more perilous than ever. Poor President Obama! He promised to usher in an era of progressive reform, but is watching the immolation of the Democrats and the rise of the Tea Party. Change is indeed occurring, but not the kind that Obama believes in. And it is the kind of change that may ultimately upend both the Democratic and Republican parties.

The cold, hard fact is that the very forces that are pressuring Obama are also a threat to the GOP. Writing in the New York Times, David Barstow cogently observes:

Loose alliances like Friends for Liberty are popping up in many cities, forming hybrid entities of Tea Parties and groups rooted in the Patriot ethos. These coalitions are not content with simply making the Republican Party more conservative. They have a larger goal-a political reordering that would drastically shrink the federal government and sweep away not just Mr. Obama, but much of the Republican establishment, starting with Senator John McCain.

America has entered a new era in both domestic and foreign policy. Whether Obama or the Republican Party can master it is questionable.

Yet might Obama escape his domestic troubles by pulling off a success in foreign policy? Will he become a new Nixon, fleeing his domestic woes by traveling abroad and trying to chalk up accomplishments in foreign affairs?

For all the troubles he is experiencing and for all the scorn poured upon Obama, there is one area in which he is beginning to show signs of real accomplishment: foreign affairs. Though Obama had little foreign policy experience upon entering office, it may well end up being the one place that he actually can boast of real successes. Consider Afghanistan. His promise during the campaign to take the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaeda looks like it's starting to bear fruit. The angry expostulations of Dick Cheney over the weekend can't disguise the fact that Obama appears to be scoring some triumphs in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

The capture of the Taliban's number two man, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, apparently alive and well, is the kind of feat that eluded the Bush administration. The intelligence payoff should be big and lead to the capture of other Taliban leaders. So consumed were the Bushies by Iraq that they put Afghanistan on the backburner. Obama hasn't. He's staked his presidency on winning in Afghanistan.

As Republicans try to tar Obama as a sissy on foreign policy, as Cheney did on Valentine's Day (not man enough to waterboard America's foes, and all that-but still, give Cheney some credit for at least intimating that perhaps Sarah Palin shouldn't be the heartthrob of the GOP), Obama's actions abroad suggest the opposite. He's a war president.

Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also ramping up the rhetoric against Iran. Clinton is stating the obvious in noting that Iran is moving from a religious to a military dictatorship. In Doha, Qatar, Clinton said, "We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship." Her tough language hardly betokens an appeasement-minded Obama administration. Whether tougher sanctions will be effective is another matter. But Obama is not backing down in the face of Iranian threats.

Still, Obama's best chance of success may be in Afghanistan, which is a mark of how endangered his own presidency has become. How much credit he would get inside America for subduing the Taliban is also a question-mark. Unless the economy begins to recover, Obama will remain very much on the defensive in 2012.

But that's no reason for complacency in the GOP. As conservatives prepare for the CPAC convention at the Marriott Wardman hotel later this week, they have as much to fret about as to celebrate. But perhaps the assembled attendees can comfort themselves with the thought that pessimism has always been the essence of conservative doctrine.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.