Go Small and Stay Home

With an opposition Congress coming soon, Obama would be wise to resist the temptation of becoming a foreign-policy president.

When U.S. presidents suffer galactic losses in midterm elections -- as it looks like Barack Obama is about to do on Tuesday -- they are often tempted to turn outward to foreign policy. Here, freed from endless haggling with an oppositional Congress, they have traditionally had greater flexibility and latitude to maneuver and more opportunity to appear decisive and presidential.

Will Obama be any different? After all, he's a wartime president with a Nobel Peace Prize. The last time we had one of those -- Woodrow Wilson -- the United States fared pretty well.

But Obama confronts a host of foreign-policy challenges that go well beyond those of Wilson's presidency. Wilson won a world war and got himself into trouble not for want of a diplomatic opportunity but because of his own rigidity and refusal to make practical compromises over the League of Nations. Wilson headed the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, but refused to include any senior Republican senators or any influential members of Congress in the delegation. His relationship with Henry Cabot Lodge was poisonous; but had the president been willing to play politics he could have managed to shepherd the treaty and U.S. membership in the League through the Senate. Obama is wrestling with two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he can't win decisively, and nation-building efforts will go on long after he leaves the White House. Unlike Wilson, however, it isn't Washington politics that are undercutting his foreign policy; it's the politics out there.

Obama's real problem is this: Unlike Wilson and other consequential foreign-policy presidents, he lacks ready-made or even easily manufactured opportunities abroad. The world the president inherited, at least in the Middle East and South Asia, isn't defined by the promise of stunningly conclusive U.S. military victories or decisive conflict-ending agreements; instead of black and white, the United States confronts the world of gray -- extractive and corrupt allies, determined and often undefined enemies, asymmetrical conflicts, and failed or failing states. There are no heroes, breakthroughs, or definitive outcomes to much of anything here.

Tuesday's midterms -- whatever their outcome -- won't change that. Even if the House and Senate both go to the Republicans, the president will still be able to have his way in Congress should a serious diplomatic opportunity open up abroad. On domestic matters, it's likely that Obama will meet significant resistance over the next two years, and while "game-changing" peace agreements or international diplomatic overtures might prove alluring, it's dealing with the internal politics of the small tribes in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan that will shape the success or failure of his policies.

If he's smart on this one (and I think he is), the president will keep his head, his rhetoric, and his ambitions small. He isn't going to find much solace and refuge in the world of Hamid Karzai, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Hamas and Hezbollah. He can't (and won't) withdraw from this world, but he now also knows he can't remake it either. Gone are the transformational ambitions of nation-building, grand bargains, and comprehensive peace. What's left are more in the way of downsized transactions: managing, not resolving conflict; contracting, not expanding the U.S. role in them; and just plain getting by, or in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, getting out.

For all the focus on how the midterm results will change the trajectory of Obama's term, what will determine the fate of the president's policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Arab-Israeli conflict are their politics, not America's. It matters far less whether Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner wields the speaker's gavel than how Karzai deals with the Taliban and whether Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi can get along. In the new world of the small tribe and the great power, the United States' leverage is limited. We really have become a modern day Gulliver -- tied up by small, determined powers whose interests aren't our own. And these aren't Wilson's or FDR's wars. Victory is determined not by whether we can win, but by when we can leave, and what -- if anything -- of value we leave behind.

In other areas, where U.S. forces aren't deployed, local politics -- again, theirs, not Washington's -- also constrict Obama's options. In the Arab-Israeli arena, paradoxically the least hopeless of the issues the president confronts in the Middle East and South Asia, domestic politics drive both Israeli and Palestinian strategies, and in the process, limit how much Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are willing and able to do. Right next door to Israel, two nonstate actors operating in two nonstates (Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon) will be far more consequential to U.S. foreign policy than how Tea Party candidates fare on Tuesday. The same can be said of the importance of the convoluted domestic politics in Iran and Pakistan, which seem to shape how these countries operate abroad. Obama's options are pretty bleak here, but whatever opportunities exist for enhancing Pakistan's stability or preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, they'll be driven less by the new congressional math and much more by events on the ground in conflict areas where the United States has limited influence.

Should Republicans run the table, it will of course have an impact on how Obama is perceived abroad. U.S. allies and adversaries will assess how badly weakened the president is and make adjustments accordingly. But the notion that the loss of one house or even two will neuter the president's capacity -- should a real chance appear to do something serious abroad -- is flat-out wrong. If a genuine opportunity, let's say to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal (humor me here), opens up, Obama will go for it -- and likely swipe aside any objections from Capitol Hill. After all, he doesn't need 60 votes in the Senate to conduct negotiations, broker an agreement, or even provide the outlines of possible assurances on security and economic assistance. More to the point, if Israelis and Palestinians are really ready to conclude a peace treaty, no Congress will deny the president the security, economic, or technical assistance they need. In this regard, the national interest pursued in a smart way by a capable president always triumph's narrower domestic policy interests.

Obama may indeed be tempted to spend more time abroad as domestic constraints limit his ability to maneuver at home. For a president who's already a wartime leader with a Nobel Peace Prize, this would seem to be the natural alternative. I hope that, in at least one respect, conventional wisdom proves wrong. Forget Karzai's house; America's is broken and could use a big dose of comity, civility, and cooperation across the aisle. Trying to fix Afghanistan or achieve Arab-Israeli peace may, in Obama's mind, be more presidential than hammering out painful compromises on the domestic side with a smug, entitled, and dominant Republican majority. In the end, dealing with John Boehner and the Republicans may prove harder than dealing with Karzai or a range of other foreign-policy impossibles, but it just might be better for the United States.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Ignoring Yemen at Our Peril

Last week's mail bombs could have taken a horrific toll. Next time, the world might not be so lucky.

Seven years ago this month, al Qaeda in Yemen was on its last legs, worn down by years of U.S. and Yemeni strikes. The group's original leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was dead, the target of a November 2002 strike by an unmanned CIA drone.

His replacement, an amputee named Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, fared little better. One year after the death of his boss, the veteran of the fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya was presiding over an organization in disarray. Like a general without an army, al-Ahdal was out of options. In November 2003, he was tracked down to a safe house on the outskirts of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. A last-minute mediator from the president's office prevented a shootout in the residential neighborhood, convincing al-Ahdal to surrender. Just like that, the threat had been eliminated. Al Qaeda in Yemen was defeated.

Since then, things have not gone so well. Edmund Hull, the United States' first post-September 11 ambassador to Yemen, left the country in the summer of 2004. His departure marked a turning point for U.S. priorities in Yemen. No longer was al Qaeda a top concern. Now, it was election reforms and anti-corruption campaigns that took center stage, as part of the Bush administration's grand scheme to democratize the Middle East. President Ali Abdullah Salih, who had been part of the solution on al Qaeda, was increasingly seen as part of the problem on reform. U.S. funding dwindled to embarrassingly low levels. Absent a terrorist threat, Yemen was no longer important.

The Yemeni government was just as distracted. Instead of working to secure the victory, it directed its attention and military resources against an armed rebellion in the country's far north that began in June 2004. The on-again, off-again civil war has since gone through six different rounds, draining the country's coffers and exacerbating tribal fault lines.

Both countries were guilty of lapsed vigilance. Years of dithering and distractions left each unprepared for a resurgence. The spark came early one morning in February 2006, when 23 al Qaeda suspects tunneled out of a maximum-security prison on the edge of Sanaa and into a neighboring mosque, where they performed the dawn prayer before walking out the front door to freedom.

Hampered by inattention and the resulting sketchy intelligence reports, U.S. officials focused on what they knew. They concentrated their efforts on Jamal al-Badawi and Jabir al-Banna, the two escapees on the FBI's most wanted list. But as is so often the case, it was what and who the U.S. didn't know that would, in the end, be the most damaging.

Instead of al-Badawi and al-Banna, it was Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi who would turn out to be the most dangerous fugitives, resurrecting al Qaeda and taking aim at U.S. interests and even the American homeland. Al-Badawi and al-Banna were yesterday's threats, the last survivors of a fading generation. Al-Wihayshi and al-Raymi were the future.

Both had spent time studying under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, supplementing their conversations and lessons with time in al Qaeda training camps. Al-Wihayshi, the tiny, wispy figure, was a bin Laden favorite. The tall Saudi selected the short Yemeni to serve as his understudy and personal secretary. The four-year apprenticeship would serve al-Wihayshi well when he began to build his own branch of al Qaeda in the aftermath of the prison break. Bin Laden's blueprints in Afghanistan served as his model for the new organization in Yemen.

But still the threat was ignored. Al-Wihayshi's efforts were taking place in the eastern governorates of Marib and al-Jawf, far from Yemen's centers of power, out of sight and unknown. In 2006, the year al-Wihayshi escaped and began to rebuild, U.S. funding to Yemen totaled a paltry $ 4.6 million, the lowest it had been since September 11.

Neither the United States nor Yemen treated the prison break as anything other than aberration, a one-off event with few long-term consequences. The continued neglect in the face of mounting evidence -- suicide attacks, assassinations, and statements of intent -- represents a failure of imagination on a colossal scale -- and the U.S. is still paying the price.

It would be another two years before U.S. officials realized that, once again, they had a serious problem in Yemen. In September 2008, seven men in two cars launched a well-organized assault on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which if not for the quick thinking and brave actions of a private Yemeni security guard, who was killed in the attack, might have been much bloodier than it was. A handful of civilians, including one American, were killed in the shootout along with all seven attackers.

Months later, in January 2009, two former Guantánamo Bay detainees, both of whom the U.S. had released, showed up in a video sitting beside al-Wihayshi and al-Raymi and together they announced the formation of a new regional organization, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Almost immediately, the newly merged group went after the man at the top of its hit list, Muhammad bin Nayyif, Saudi Arabia's deputy minister of the interior and the single biggest threat to its continued existence.

The ingenious assassination attempt used one of bin Nayyif's earlier successes against him. A Saudi militant, Abdullah Asiri, posing as a repentant member of AQAP, persuaded the prince that he wanted to surrender. During their subsequent meeting at a Ramadan banquet, Asiri convinced bin Nayyif that there were others like him in Yemen who just needed a word of assurance from the prince before they too would surrender. As soon as he got on the phone, the bomb Asiri had hidden in his rectum exploded, lightly wounding bin Nayyif (there is some dispute about the bomb's exact placement).

Elements of that attack were later incorporated into the attempt to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Both bombs used PETN, a highly explosive chemical agent, and were likely built by Ibrahim Asiri, Abdullah's brother, and the man suspected of constructing the parcel bombs discovered last week.

The United States, faced with a difficult situation in Yemen and still playing catch-up from years of neglect, has been unable to find an adequate response to the AQAP threat. Early estimates of 300 members are, to judge by the summer of attacks in Yemen, far too conservative. President Barack Obama is overburdened with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is likely well aware of the disastrous consequences of invasion. He does not want to send U.S. troops into Yemen. He has opted instead for surgical strikes aimed at decapitating AQAP's leadership. Unfortunately, the series of airstrikes the United States orchestrated in late 2009 and early 2010 have only made the problem worse, boosting al-Qaeda's local recruiting appeal.

In one early strike, dozens of civilians were killed in a village in the south of Yemen. In another airstrike, a Yemeni government official was killed instead of the al-Qaeda member, who was supposedly the target. Both incidents have been used by AQAP's media wing as examples that Yemen is under Western military attack. Under this argument, Yemenis are compelled to fight the United States and its local allies in defense of Muslim lands.

Neither approach -- full invasion or surgical strikes -- will solve the problem of al-Qaeda terrorism in Yemen and make America safer. The United States and its allies have been lucky three times in just over a year. Counting on that luck holding is not a safe bet.