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.