Good luck in trying to separate the so-called national interest from the president's own priorities. What's good for the United States is often seamlessly mixed together with what's good for a president, including his own priorities and inclinations, competing domestic policy choices, election realities, and international constraints that bear on the foreign-policy matter at hand.
Disrespecting the system
The U.S. system is far from perfect. The Founders feared special interests, and the marriage of media, money, and lobbies has had a corrupting influence on American politics. But as political scientist Edward Corwin observed, the U.S. system, for better or worse, is an open invitation to struggle -- not just among the three branches of government but among lobbies, public interest groups, and the government too.
Organize, compete, and take your best shot. That's the American way. But don't whine and complain about it. And don't think that you're somehow entitled to have your way in the foreign-policy arena just because.
Exasperated, a very senior State Department official once exploded: Congress doesn't know shit from Shinola about U.S. foreign policy. That might be true. But the notion that the State Department has all the answers is ludicrous too. I no more want the executive branch having an entirely free hand in foreign policy than I'd like to see Congress do it.
And nothing offends me more than those who don't understand the screwed-up system disrespecting it. A very influential Saudi once told me that in his view, Congress was the Little Knesset; and more European and Arab diplomats than I care to count just assume that the White House is Israeli-occupied territory. The Arabs only wish the pro-Arab community in America were as influential as the pro-Israeli one.
And in a hot argument about Syria the other day, a former State Department official pronounced that he didn't give a damn what the American people wanted; the president needed to lead and intervene militarily. So let me get this straight: What the public wants or doesn't shouldn't matter? Really? I dare say that had there been a draft in the United States in 2003, it might not have invaded Iraq -- and it certainly wouldn't have stayed for a decade.
The president's voice is the most important one on foreign policy, both as a practical matter and as a consequence of the powers laid out in the U.S. Constitution. But he doesn't and shouldn't have a free hand. In America's democratic polity, he presides over a cacophonous, competitive system in which various elements fight to make their case or constrain his.
And politics -- both those that pertain to the election of presidents and to their other domestic priorities -- aren't some evil conspiracy hatched in a dark room. They are the natural, inevitable currency in which business is done in both domestic and foreign policy.
Smart presidents who are skillful, willful, and lucky, particularly when it comes to the Middle East, can find a way to get stuff done, overcome domestic lobbies, manage their domestic politics, and further the national interest in the process (see Richard Nixon and Bush 41). Others aren't so lucky because they screw up either their foreign policy (Bush 43) or their politics (Jimmy Carter). Obama is getting hammered by the liberal interventionists and the conservative hawks because of his risk-aversion in the Middle East. But he's betting that a second-term domestic legacy -- immigration reform, economic recovery, action on climate change, maybe another run at gun control -- is more in step with what Americans want than risky wagers abroad.
But, like Newton's law of universal gravitation, no president escapes the political rules that govern the American system. Domestic politics are as old, inevitable, and American as apple pie or ice cream melting on a hot Fourth of July. What goes up must come down. And sometimes, the best an American president can do is to make sure the apple doesn't hit him on the head.