The Extricator in Chief

Enough with the fantasies. Barack Obama's not going to reshape the world order in his second term.

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.

The President and His Team

We know the president's instincts: cautious, deliberate, with a leadership style that prefers to dominate rather than delegate decisions.

We have also seen his basic approach: practical, non-ideological, multilateral where possible, wary of high doctrine, and determined to avoid foreign adventures. Indeed, BHO is the extricator in chief, taking the United States out of old wars and tight spots, while ensuring that the country doesn't become entangled in new ones. Nor has he demonstrated the kind of strategic grasp of a Henry Kissinger or a James Baker, or exhibited an understanding of the art of making a deal. And neither has anyone around him.

The real question is whether the president -- regardless of how smart, intuitive, and nuanced a thinker he is -- can be a doer. Does he have the will and the skill to tackle the toughest issues -- the grand bargain with Iran or war with the mullahs, or a big initiative to break open the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does he even want to? And because he can't do all this by his lonesome, will the next secretary of state have the drive, negotiating skills, and personal toughness to shoulder much of the load?

Don't shoot me. But I just don't see it -- yet.

Domestic Drag

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the United States has a few domestic challenges that need sorting out. The line between what matters at home and America's capacity to remain a great power abroad no longer exists. The country's strength abroad has always flowed from its economic and social capacity.

Now, the six deadly Ds -- debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, dependence on hydrocarbons, a deteriorating education system, and decaying infrastructure -- are slow bleeds sapping the country's national strength and resolve.

America can't withdraw from the world, nor can it afford to focus on domestic priorities at the expense of protecting its interests abroad. But the president's political capital -- even after reelection -- isn't limitless. Much of it will be required, particularly in the first year, to deal with economic and other matters, such as immigration reform. And that first year, according to Brzezinski, is critically important when it comes to tackling some of the most troublesome foreign-policy challenges.

Governing is about choosing. I'm all for spending political currency on fixing the country's broken house before running around trying to fix someone else's (see: Israel-Palestine). Can America do both? That remains to be seen.

Cruel and Unforgiving World

The key requirement for success in a bolder Obama foreign policy 2.0 is not only will and skill, but opportunity. Indeed, the foundation for foreign-policy success isn't lack of political constraints -- it's the presence of some flexibility among those engaged in the problem the president is trying to resolve.

That is to say, are the locals also interested in striking the grand bargain or forging the historic peace? To some degree, presidents can help shape that environment, but unless the parties -- in today's world, the Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, or Russians -- are ready too, the odds of success are very long indeed.

Some argue that regardless of the risks and odds, trying and failing is better than not trying at all. It's a noble sentiment, but more appropriate for high school athletics than for the foreign policy of the world's greatest power. Failure, particularly repeated failure (see again: Israel-Palestine), can actually make matters worse, particularly when the effort isn't serious or well conceived.

Obama's foreign policy -- with some exceptions -- has so far been pretty good. Save killing Osama bin Laden, he has had no spectacular successes, but no spectacular failures either. Extricating America from the two longest wars in its history, preventing another attack on the U.S. homeland, and improving America's image in the world is pretty good. And I'd even argue that avoiding overreach -- even at the expense of a not terribly imaginative foreign policy -- is appropriate for the times in which America finds itself.

If leading from behind means thinking things through and ensuring that you have clear, reasonably attainable objectives and the means to achieve them -- well, sign me up.

So, Mr. President, here's how you should really approach your second-term foreign policy: Accept that this may not be the moment for grand transformation, and understand there's nothing wrong with a series of fruitful transactions.

Test the mullahs on an interim agreement on the nuclear issue as a first step toward a possible broader bargain. Push the Israelis and Palestinians on an interim accord on borders and security if you can. Work on a reasonable reset of relations with the Russians that allows for a degree of cooperation rather than constant competition. And either find a way to inject credibility into the "pivot to Asia," or find another way to check the Chinese but cooperate with them too. Above all, make sure to accept partial victories, if that's what's on the table.

At the same time, ignore the advice of those Don Quixotes who are urging you to expend your time and energy -- not to mention your rapidly diminishing credibility -- on problems you can't possibly resolve and on fights you aren't going to win.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

Obama Can’t Get No Respect

World leaders don't lose any sleep after snubbing the president. Here's why.

The late Rodney Dangerfield (formerly Jacob Cohen of Deer Park, New York) made a successful career out of getting no respect. "Last week I told my wife we needed a home improvement loan; she gave me  $1000 to move out," was the comic's sort of gag.

These days President Obama might consider taking his own no respect routine on the road. Last week he was playing a pretty convincing Rodney Dangerfield.

In as many days, two American allies, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, delivered back-to-back snubs to the President. Abbas rebuffed U.S. efforts to prevent the Palestine Liberation Organization from pushing for non-member observer state status at the United Nations, and Bibi plowed ahead (literally) with plans for new settlements in East Jerusalem -- including the radioactive E-1 project, which would effectively cut the West Bank in half by separating Ramallah and Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Last week's string of no's should hardly have come as a surprise to anyone following the course of Obama's foreign and domestic policy during his first term.

Over the last four years, the nadas have come fast and furious -- from friends and foes alike. Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki said no to a status of forces agreement, the Iranian mullahs said no to stopping enrichment, Putin said no to any U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, and Pakistan continues to support the Taliban and oppose American goals in Afghanistan. The one no that actually helped Obama -- but hurt the country -- was the Republican "Just Say No" platform to every facet of the White House's agenda, which  cost the GOP big-time at the polls.

Nor is there much prospect that the no's are going to end anytime soon. From wrangling with Republicans on the edge of the fiscal cliff to wrestling with the Russians,  Chinese, and the Iranian mullahs, Barack Obama seems trapped between his "Yes We Can" hopes and the "No You Won't" realities. 

But is anyone really surprised? It's a cruel and unforgiving world out there and America doesn't control it. Indeed, in my favorite part of the world -- the angry, broken and dysfunctional Middle East -- we have even less influence these days.  Our old friends (dependable autocrats like Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Ali Abdullah Saleh) have gone the way of the dodo. And the new rising Islamists (Mohamed Morsi, Hamas, and even the Turks) don't care much for our policies.

It's no wonder that the most successful aspects of Obama's foreign policy are those areas where the United States acts unilaterally and doesn't have to depend on the naysayers (see: The withdrawal from Iraq and soon Afghanistan, and the drone war). Obama abroad can we summed up in one phrase: no spectacular successes and no spectacular failures. Anything more in the win column will depend on a cast of characters (Putin, Abbas, Morsi, the mullahs, Netanyahu) who have little interest in giving in to American persuasion or pressure.

But saying no to America is a more complex business than you might imagine. There are different ways of saying no, and the reasons behind the rejections are often more nuanced than they appear at first glance. However they are delivered, they still come out as negatives, of course, -- never a great thing for a great power's street cred. Here's a definitely politically incorrect guide to the art of rejection.

Abbas: The "I Don't Trust You" No

Here's the blunt truth: Mahmoud Abbas's willingness to push ahead with his U.N. statehood bid over strong U.S. objections will not advance the two-state cause. But his reasons for doing so are perfectly understandable. 

Abbas is weak and feckless. But he has given up the gun and is likely the best partner Israel has ever had. Negotiations aren't an option right now, and we'd be foolish to push him back to the table when Netanyahu is sure to offer only embarrassment and inevitable failure. Hamas is rising and the Palestinian Authority's cred is falling after having failed to deliver either an end to Israel's occupation or economic prosperity. Abbas is long in the tooth and thinking about his legacy, even if it's only a matter of symbols.

Abbas would like to work with the United States. But he just doesn't trust Obama -- and he shouldn't. If the key American talking point to block the recent Palestinian initiative at the United Nations was "don't move, I'll gin up a big peace initiative, just be patient," I can see why Abbas went to New York.

Netanyahu: The "Screw you and the Pony you Rode In On" No

Bibi is feeling pretty good these days - and the Israeli premier is usually on his guard about something. The Gaza operation worked out pretty well. He got Egypt and the United States to hold his coat while he conducted an intense air and missile campaign. He's got no serious challengers in the upcoming elections.

Isn't it the time for magnanimity, or at least a little forbearance, you ask? Have you ever met Bibi? It's a perfect time to stick it to both Abbas and the Americans. Abbas has just delivered a speech at the United Nations that doesn't mention two states for two peoples, talks about Israel's racist colonialist policies, and leaves the Israelis guessing about the Palestinians submitting war crimes charges to the ICC.

So let's build, Bibi thinks. Not only housing units in east Jerusalem -- but why not take additional steps on the controversial E-1 master plan? Bibi knows this is an American red line. But he likely figures he can shore up his right-wing base and get away with it in Washington. He's testing Obama early in the second term and figures that the president won't push back against Israel -- particularly now that he's approaching the end game on the fiscal cliff with Republicans who are looking for vulnerabilities they can exploit. 

Putin: The "What Do You Expect from an ex-KGB Leader of a Fading Great Power" No

We've seen Putin in three different terms so far -- two as a president, one as prime minister. And while he's not above cutting deals with Obama, what's come through more strongly is his need to stand up to the United States and use it as his punching bag. Whether it's on missile defense, Syria, expelling USAID, or blasting America's ambassador to Moscow, Putin has launched a full-fledged assault on U.S. interests and values.

This kind of behavior isn't just tactics, it's deeply ingrained in the nature of an obsessively suspicious former intelligence agent whose distrust of the West is as firmly anchored as his love of Russia, and his grieving over the loss of status and prestige of the Russia that used to be.

Putin just can't help himself. His first inclination is to believe the worst about U.S. motives. The marriage of insecurity and grandiosity in his own personality -- and in Russia's national identity -- guarantees it. Getting Putin to say yes may be possible, but it's bound to be a long and painful process. Any reset of relations will continue to be hostage to Russia's own authoritarian system and Putin's authoritarian and controlling personality.

Morsy:  The "Yes That Really Means No"

Barack Obama had it right the first time when he asserted back in September that he wasn't sure the new Egypt under Mohamed Morsy was an ally of the United States. I hope in the wake of Morsy's domestic power grab -- and even after the positive role he played in the Gaza ceasefire -- the president hasn't forgotten that.

We tend to conflate tactics and strategy, ends and means. And we tend to look on the bright side of things, or even search for Hollywood endings. This was the case with the Tahrir Square narrative -- and we're doing it again with Morsy.

The Egyptian president's figurative yes - commitment to democratization -- isn't an endorsement of real power-sharing.  Nor does his role in the Gaza ceasefire signal Morsy's emergence as a peace process devotee.

Morsy found himself in a tough spot as the prospect of an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza loomed. This crisis would have been a needless distraction from his bid to consolidate power and secure badly needed international assistance, and he might have been forced to place Egypt in a destructive confrontation with the United States.

But Morsy isn't about to become Obama's proxy on the peace process. Unlike Mubarak, he doesn't support a two state solution, hadn't mentioned Israel once publicly until the Gaza crisis, and as a Muslim Brother can hardly be expected to push for the concessions on Jerusalem required for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. Nor should he be confused for a democrat: The party whose interests he represents is authoritarian and exclusivist. He'll share power if he's forced to -- and then likely only with the military, another anti-democratic force in Egypt.

Until proven otherwise, Obama needs to be wary of the short-term tactical yes that is really long-term strategic no.

The Mullahs: "The No that Really Means No -- or Maybe ‘Yes, But...'"

The Iranians have been saying no to Obama on the nuclear issue since he came into office. And the reason isn't hard to divine: Iran's conviction that it has the right to enrich uranium is a matter of national identity and pride. I also believe that because Iran is a state driven by profound insecurity and grandiosity, it also wants a nuclear weapon to guard against the first and enhance the second, though this is eminently arguable proposition.

Can Iran's no become a yes? For the right price, maybe. Under the right circumstances the mullahs may be prepared to say yes...but.

A deal with the Iranians will involve a very high price -- enrichment of uranium at higher levels than the Israelis or the United States may be ready to accept and major relief on sanctions, at a minimum. Iran is hurting: Sanctions and the threat of force are taking a toll on Tehran, and the fall of the Assads in Syria will be another blow. At the same time, that result could also toughen Iran's terms for a deal and even accelerate its desire for a weapon as fear of Sunni encirclement intensifies. 

We better get used to this parade of no's. You can choose your reasons why -- the world is a cruel place, we don't control it, Obama is weak, saying no to America isn't new, or all of the above. 

But one thing is clear. Saying no to the United States may not be new, but it seems to have gotten a whole lot easier. And that's not great for our credibility and deterrence. There just doesn't appear to be much negative cost or consequence for saying no to the world's greatest power any more - unless, of course, you find yourself on the wrong end of a Predator drone.