This month, former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski -- a man of uncommon intellect, insight, and broad experience -- wrote on this site that President Barack Obama should regain his lost credibility on foreign policy, seize the initiative, and stop kowtowing to domestic lobbies.
Freed from election constraints, Brzezinski argued, Obama will no longer be judged by the public, but by history. The implication? The president can afford to be bold and decisive in shaping his foreign-policy legacy.
Is Zbig right? Can the president now set about being the transformer he and his acolytes always wanted him to be -- BHO unchained, if you will, perhaps one of the great foreign-policy presidents of the modern era?
It would be terrific. But here's a shocker for you: I'm betting against it. Here's why.
The Second-Term Illusion
On paper it all looks so promising. A popular two-term president freed from the pressure of reelection and driven by legacy sets out to conduct big-time diplomacy. Risk-ready rather than risk-averse, political constraints fall away in favor of doing what's right and what's in the national interest. The Obama White House turns into a real-life version of The West Wing: beating up on Bibi, striking grand bargains with the Iranian mullahs, and launching big initiatives on climate change.
But the world rarely works out that way. The same political choices, risks, and political laws of gravity that make these issues so tough to handle in a president's first term seem as difficult in the second. Other issues intrude, and leaders delay the tough calls. Exhausted and weary, second-termers are prone to scandals, stumbles, and mistakes. As the term wears on, lame-duckery starts to compete with legacy. The Chinese, Russians, Israelis, Arabs, and Iranians all know that the clock is running out -- sooner than anyone expects, the "let's wait until the next president appears" syndrome sets in.