A president in his second term is always tempted to focus on foreign policy because the Constitution gives the executive branch far more sweeping authority in that realm than it does in domestic matters. This is especially the case when Congress is controlled by the party to which the president does not belong: Republicans today are no more interested in achieving overarching policy consensus with President Barack Obama on domestic issues than Democrats were in achieving results with President George W. Bush.
The problem for Obama is that the world is a mess right now. If he plans to build, or at least maintain, what political capital he has left, it is difficult to see how he can achieve the kind of results that will enhance, rather than diminish, his standing in the polls or before history.
One of the least noticed policy changes that Obama has championed is a shift in emphasis from Europe to Asia in U.S. diplomatic and defense strategy. The idea is that China is a rising power while Russia is a declining one, politically, economically and militarily. Twenty years hence, we need to be prepared for a potentially confrontational China with resources that could truly challenge U.S. interests and even security.
But 20 years is a long time, and while policy experts are right to begin analyzing our resources in the Pacific, on a day-to-day basis, Obama still finds himself dealing with traditional hotspots.
Additionally, moves to establish strong partnerships in Asia are not a political slam-dunk. Efforts to enact new trade deals with countries in the region insult the core Democratic values that have increasingly dominated discussions on the political left.
Democrats, most especially Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., rightly complain that trade deals benefit multinational corporations at the expense of workers, and often yield unintended consequences. They point to the effects the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade pacts had in Central America, where local economies were disrupted, societal chaos unleashed, and increased emigration from the region followed. NAFTA never created as many jobs as it promised, and those jobs that are there now will likely move to Vietnam as the new trade deals with Asia go through.
If that were not enough, there is North Korea, as unpredictable a regime as one can imagine.
The primary difficulty in refocusing U.S. foreign policy on Asia, however, is that the rest of the world demands U.S. attention.
At the top of the list is the Mideast, where the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria seems to have caught the administration off-guard. Just a few months back, the president referred to the Islamic State as the “JV team” to al-Qaida. The phrase was an unhappy one, redolent of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s claim in 1940 that Hitler had “missed the bus” by not immediately invading the Western powers at the start of the war the previous September. One month after Chamberlain’s speech, Hitler did indeed turn West, and it was panzer tanks, not buses, that soon put the Nazi flag atop the Eiffel Tower.
The Islamic State has spread its reach very quickly, gobbling up large tracts in Iraq and Syria. More disturbing, nihilist gangsters in Europe find in the group a cause that only makes their propensity toward violence more likely, and more likely to be vicious. Most of us are repulsed by the images of beheadings and burning people alive, but some twisted souls are inspired by those same images. It is one thing to see such acts of violence in Iraq. Seeing them in Paris is quite another.
Obama is not alone in his befuddlement. The degree to which we in the West can’t get our heads around the phenomenon of Islamist violence is evident by watching television. After a gunman attacked a free speech advocate and then a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, CNN anchors asked if there might be a connection to the previous attack in Paris. I suppose a synagogue is different from a deli, but the pattern -- kill free speech advocates, then Jews -- demonstrated enough of a pattern to me.
No one really knows how to confront the Islamic State. Jordan and Egypt have now shown interest in carrying more of the military effort, but Jordan is unstable and Egypt is a military oligarchy. They are not natural allies, nor is a military solution enough. Yemen is descending into civil war. Libya is a failed state. Lebanon is barely holding its once-warring factions together. Not a lot to build on if one is seeking a coalition.
And Obama has failed to construct a strong working relationship with America’s surest ally in the region, Israel. Yes, stroking Benjamin Netanyahu’s enormous ego has all the appeal of patting a porcupine, but stroking allies is part of a president’s job.
In addition to the Mideast, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine keeps that blood-soaked region volatile. After taking back Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime started helping insurgents in Eastern Ukraine. Putin is a thug pretending to be a politician, and his regime is a criminal enterprise pretending to be a government. Of course, Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin was once our ally as well, but only because a common, worse threat united the U.S. with the Soviets during World War II. European efforts to find a peaceful solution bear an eerie resemblance to their stonewalling on efforts to save Sarajevo in the 1990s.
Truth be told, there is not a lot the U.S. or Europe can do in Eastern Ukraine, just as there was no way to guarantee a democratic government in most eastern European countries after World War II. We may feel badly about what is happening, but we are not going to go to war over it.
If Obama were a better student of history, he might have realized that a turn to foreign policy did not promise a fruitful last few years in office. Consider the record of presidents in their second terms. Woodrow Wilson failed to get the Senate to join the League of Nations. Harry Truman got us bogged down in Korea. Lyndon B. Johnson did the same in Vietnam. George W. Bush’s popularity died in the deserts of Iraq.
Only Ronald Reagan, benefiting from the political movement Perestroika in Russia under Soviet statesmen Mikhail Gorbachev, and President Bill Clinton, oddly benefiting from the GOP’s overreaction to Monicagate, enjoyed their last few years in office with high approval ratings. Both men also had strong economic winds at their backs.
Obama might -- repeat might -- have similar strong economic news to bolster his standing in the polls. Nothing overseas will have that effect.
[Michael Sean Winters writes about religion and politics on his blog, Distinctly Catholic.]