Second-term U.S. presidents tend to focus more on world affairs than on domestic issues, for good or for ill. In January 1957, Dwight Eisenhower authorized the commitment of U.S. forces “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence” of any nation that requested help against communist aggression. Ronald Reagan, after his reelection in 1984, vigorously promoted the “rollback” of Soviet positions around the world, instead of the mere containment that had defined U.S. strategy for decades. During his second term Bill Clinton articulated the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention,” and in the final months of his presidency he made a concerted effort to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. And George W. Bush’s doctrine of unilateral interventionism and preventive warfare reached its mature form during his last four years in the Oval Office.
Barack Obama is poised to be an exception to the rule. In his second term he will likely follow a cautious foreign policy that would leave him free to focus on the Fiscal Cliff, healthcare, Social Security, and immigration reform. He wants to transform America in line with his ideological convictions, sees “nation-building at home” as his legacy, and has no transformational global objectives. The appointments of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan to his core national-security team provide a clear indicator of Obama’s intentions. There will be no retreat from the world, but more prudence and caution in balancing ends and means, in line with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ view that
any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.
An early indicator of Obama’s second-term approach came on January 11, when President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan came to the White House hoping to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement beyond the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014. He tried to play the role of a reluctant partner who needed to be wooed in order to accept an open-ended and substantial U.S. military presence, which he knows is necessary to keep himself and his corrupt cronies alive. Obama promptly disabused him of any such notion. “Let me say it as plainly as I can: starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission,” he declared. “That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had over the last ten years in Afghanistan.” A similar scenario unfolded in Iraq in 2011, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected the offer of a small permanent American contingent—and ended up with none. Karzai’s failure to do his homework heralds a similar outcome in Afghanistan. What will happen in 2015 and beyond does not appear to bother Obama. He seems to think that an endemic civil war, warlordism, and tribal fragmentation of the country are of no consequence to the United States as long as Al Qaeda’s comeback can be prevented by drones and cruise missiles.
Similar realism may soon be applied elsewhere in the greater Middle East.
At the time of this writing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems certain to retain his post, which means that the moribund Arab-Israeli “peace process” will not be brought back to life in the years to come. Both Kerry and Hagel are known to favor a more even-handed U.S. policy in the region. The latter’s statements about the influence of the Jewish Lobby and his assertion of his primary loyalty “to the Constitution of the United States, not . . . to Israel” have prompted an unprecedented campaign of vilification by Netanyahu’s loyalists in Washington, which is unlikely to make the new team any better disposed to the demands of the Lobby.
Netanyahu will not make concessions on the settlements or on any other core issue. With much of the Arab world in turmoil, he thinks that he is in no hurry, but Israel cannot keep her strong hand in perpetuity. Israel needs to pull out of the occupied territories and dismantle the settlements—which Netanyahu will never accept. But no Arab leader will settle for less than a Palestinian state on the land that was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Like many other religious and ethnic conflicts around the world, this one will go on for as long as both sides are willing to pay the costs of what they regard as a necessary fight. Only when they grow weary of the stalemate should the United States mediate. Obama’s new national-security team understands that much, and it may well pursue a policy of benign neglect. Eventually, this should entail ending military and financial aid to Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority.
Obama’s reluctance to get involved directly in Syria and to escalate the dispute with Iran is likely to be reinforced by the new secretaries of state and defense (assuming his current choices are confirmed). John Kerry had long maintained that Syria could help bring peace and stability to the Middle East and that the government of President Bashar al-Assad should be encouraged to pursue a constructive relationship with the United States. He now believes that Bashar has to go, but both he and Chuck Hagel are known to take a dimmer view than Hillary Clinton does of the makeup and intentions of the Syrian opposition. It is therefore possible that U.S. policy will become more nuanced. The realist option would be to promote a negotiated settlement that entails Bashar’s departure from power, but stops short of promoting outright victory for the hard-core jihadists who dominate the armed opposition. This would be a welcome departure from Clinton’s irrational and self-defeating policy of unreserved support for the rebels.
On Iran, President Obama and his new team are likely to renew diplomatic efforts, coupled with sanctions, rather than pursue the military solution desired by Israel and the Arab Gulf states. Chuck Hagel has long advocated diplomacy over military threats. He opposed unilateral U.S. sanctions and voted against a Senate resolution to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, because he feared this could be interpreted as a precursor to a military attack. Like Hagel, John Kerry sees the Iranian nuclear program as a menace to regional stability but opposes saber-rattling. He also voted against designating the IRGC a terrorist organization, calling such an action needlessly antagonistic. Last April he opined that Iranian leaders would act rationally on the discussion of nuclear issues and said that Washington could work harder to solidify “common interests” with Iran, including defeating the Taliban and fighting drug trafficking.
A bold step in the right direction for the new team would be to probe the possibility of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Tehran, which were severed during the hostage crisis in 1979. Doing so would facilitate the next stage of crisis management and could be made conditional on Iran’s permission to open select sites to international inspectors. The outline of a negotiated solution is fairly clear. The White House should offer security guarantees to Iran in return for a rigorous supervision regime and a formal pledge that Iran will refrain from developing nuclear weapons. Tehran would be allowed to enrich uranium to the extent needed for power generation and accept international oversight of all its facilities. American, European, and other international sanctions would be eased if Iran halts her enrichment of uranium (which is getting closer to weapons-grade), sends abroad her existing stockpile of highly enriched uranium, and suspends operations at her underground Fordo facility. In 2012 Iran’s leaders rejected all three conditions, but the offer of a swift reduction in sanctions may change their minds now that the Iranian economy is struggling and the currency is collapsing.
Even if Iran is serious about developing a nuclear arsenal—and the evidence is far from conclusive—this would not present a threat to the United States worthy of military action. With nuclear-armed Pakistan and India to the east and Israel to the west, the possession of a nuclear deterrent is a rational objective for the government in Tehran to pursue. As I noted in these pages over a year ago, that objective is based on the realities of the security equation and not on the millenarian zeal of Shi’ite fanatics or on their genocidal Jew-hatred, as the proponents of war would have us believe. If diplomacy fails, Obama’s new team should prepare Plan B—a strategy for deterring and containing Iran as one of a half-dozen minor nuclear powers—rather than plunge into a potentially disastrous war with no viable exit strategy.
In its approach to China and Russia the new national-security team is likely to follow a realist course, unburdened by Hillary Clinton’s unnecessary, harmful, and hypocritically selective obsession with “human and minority rights.” China’s growing ability and willingness to exert influence beyond her borders should be seen as a challenge, rather than a threat to U.S. interests. The two countries’ economic and financial interdependence requires fundamentally cooperative relations. To that end Washington should refrain from taking sides in China’s obscure territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and accept that a country of China’s size, wealth, and stature will necessarily seek to develop a regional sphere of influence. While voting in favor of normalizing trade relations with China, John Kerry voted against an amendment tying trade to congressional oversight of the state of human rights in that country. In his words, “economics is not war. We can both come out well ahead of where we are now.” In relation to both Beijing and Moscow, Kerry is more likely than his predecessor to pursue policies based on developing stable long-term relationships.
It has been said that Obama’s presidency prefers stewardship to leadership in foreign affairs. That is not a bad thing per se, even though Obama’s motives for focusing on domestic issues are questionable. In an uncertain and increasingly multipolar world, we do not need an “Obama Doctrine”; we need prudent management of an overextended global empire in gradual decline. In its second term the Obama administration would do well to make a radical break with the delusional goal of “full-spectrum dominance” and reevaluate its foreign-policy options in line with our rationally defined interests and increasingly limited financial resources.