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.