Obama is zero for four and Republicans are sitting pretty

If I were a Republican Party leader, and I didn't care a whit about the welfare of the United States (and no, those two descriptors are not synonymous), I'd be feeling pretty good right now. My party will almost certainly pick up a lot of seats in Congress come November, which is the normal midterm pattern after a big swing the other way, and this shift will make it even easier for the GOP to obstruct future Obama initiatives. More importantly, I'd be increasingly confident about regaining the White House in 2012 too.

One big reason is the economy, of course. Although Obama's economic team did a good job of arresting the financial meltdown and recession that began under President Bush, they aren't getting much credit for this in the minds of American voters. Voters don't care about the disasters-that-might-have-been-but-weren't; they care about how things are going now. There is a wealth of political science research showing that voters' perceptions of the economy have an enormous impact on presidential elections, and a recent book by Professor Larry Bartels of Princeton suggests that income growth in election years is a powerful predictor of incumbent electoral success.

The problem for Obama is obvious: Hardly anyone expects the U.S. economy to rebound rapidly over the next couple of years, and there is still some danger of a "double-dip" recession. This fact hardly guarantees a Democratic defeat come 2012, but a sluggish U.S. economy will clearly be a boon to the GOP. And if the Republicans gain control of the House and can use it to block major legislative initiatives, it will be harder for the Dems to bolster their own chances by goosing the economy in 2011. Obama can claim credit for a financial sector reform package and a watered-down health care bill, but neither measure will improve enough U.S. lives rapidly enough to make a lot of difference at the polls.

Unfortunately for Obama, things don't look much brighter when you turn to foreign policy. On the plus side, there's a new arms control treaty with Russia (which he may not be able to get ratified), and surveys suggest that America's global image has improved dramatically in many parts of the world. They smoothed over some disputes with Japan and are doing a good job of cultivating Indonesia, which is smart policy at a moment when China is becoming more assertive. But how many votes do you think that these modest successes will bring Obama in 2012? I'd say virtually none. And an improved global image isn't much of an accomplishment, when you consider how bad things were when Obama was elected.

More importantly, Obama is likely to be O for 4 on the big ticket items that have defined his foreign policy agenda, and he will therefore be heading into 2012 without a major domestic or foreign policy achievement to run on. All that spells trouble for Democrats come 2012.

Just look at the list.

1. Iraq.
Obama didn't get us into Iraq, and he's doing the right thing to get us out more-or-less on the schedule that the Bush administration negotiated back in 2008. But it's now clear that the much-vaunted "surge" was a strategic failure, and Iraq could easily spin back out of control once U.S. forces are gone. Even in the best case, Iraq can only be judged a defeat for the United States: we will have spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in order to bring to power an unstable government that is sympathetic to Iran and unlikely to be particularly friendly to the United States. Americans don't like losing, however, and Obama is going to get blamed for this outcome even though it was entirely his predecessor's fault.

2. Iran. 
Obama made some good symbolic gestures at the beginning of his presidency, but he gradually reverted to the same fruitless approach that epitomized the Bush administration. In essence, the U.S. position on Iran remains: "first you give us everything we want -- namely, a complete end to nuclear enrichment -- and then we'll be happy to talk about some of the things that you want." This approach is not going to work, and that will lead war hawks -- including some inside the administration -- to claim that the only option remaining is military force.   

One could argue that Obama got some bad breaks here -- i.e., the contested 2009 election and subsequent turmoil in Iran undoubtedly made it much harder to do business with Tehran -- but the key point is that meaningful progress on this issue is unlikely given the administration's current approach. In the best case, we get stalemate; in the worst case, we get another war. Some smart people still think the latter outcome is unlikely and I certainly hope they are right, but there are influential voices inside and outside the administration who will continue to push for a more forceful response. If you don't believe me, read Time's Tony Karon here. In any case, there's little chance that Obama will be able to put Iran in the "win" column by 2012.

3. Israel-Palestine.
Obama took office promising "two states for two peoples" in his first term, and he appeared to be serious about it until the Cairo speech in June 2009. It's been one retreat after another ever since, and as former U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk acknowledged in a recent Ha'aretz interview, it was mostly due to pressure from the Israel lobby. In his words (not mine):

American Jews traditionally are pretty supportive of the Democratic Party. They voted overwhelmingly for Barak [sic] Obama, they tend to vote for Democratic candidates and they provide a good deal of funding for political campaigns. So the Jewish factor is always a critical factor for Democratic candidates. I don't think it's telling any secrets that there are a lot of people who have been upset with President Obama. And I think that the White House came to the understanding that they have a real problem there and they are going out of their way trying to show they are friendly to Israel and committed to peace."

The focus now seems to be solely on getting some sort of direct talks started, but even if George Mitchell conjures up a rabbit from his hat, those talks aren't going to lead anywhere. Settlements will continue to expand, the U.S. won't do anything to stop them, and more and more people will come to realize that "two states" is becoming impossible. As I've said repeatedly, this situation is bad for the United States, bad for Israel and of course bad for the Palestinians. But it is also bad for Obama, because it means there's yet another major issue where he will not be able to point to any progress.

4. Afghanistan.
I agree with those commentators who say that the recent WikiLeaks exposé didn't add a lot of new information about the Afghan campaign. Instead, it confirmed what we already knew from multiple sources: the war is going badly, our Pakistani "partner" is double-dealing, and Obama made a major mistake when he decided to escalate in 2009. How many of you are confident that we are going to turn things around? Now he's stuck, which means he will be presiding over not one but two losing wars. He didn't start either of them, but that won't matter to the American electorate, and certainly not to the GOP, Fox News, and the rest of the right-wing attack machine.  

Add to that list the signs of a deteriorating relationship with China (an issue that has significant long-term implications), the lack of progress on climate change (another Obama priority that hasn't paid off yet), and you have a presidency that will limp into 2012 without a lot of tangible foreign policy achievements to its credit. That wouldn't be a problem if the economy were humming along, but as noted above, that isn't likely to be the case.

To be sure, none of these problems are easy to solve, and the lack of progress (or in some cases, backsliding) in part reflects the very tough hand that Obama was dealt from the outset. But that excuse only goes so far. Obama's fundamental error was to try to run a very conventional foreign policy -- one that turned out to be not very different from the second Bush term -- in a situation that called for far more creative thinking and a willingness to try new approaches and stick with them even if it alienated some domestic constituencies. Instead, he's got the usual suspects running Middle East policy and achieving the same results they did in the past. He's "staying the course" in Afghanistan, even though plenty of smart people told him this was a losing strategy from the beginning. He's adopted the same unimaginative and failed policy towards Tehran, and then seems surprised that Iran doesn't leap to do our bidding.  

And perhaps most striking of all, he's failed to recognize that other states--China, Pakistan, Turkey, Brazil, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Germany, even Great Britain, etc. -- have interests that don't always coincide with ours, and that we aren't going to win their support by offering up another lofty speech. And still, after all this, we get a "National Security Strategy" with an agenda a mile long and only rhetorical recognition that there are real limits to what the United States can or should be trying to do.

So like I said, if I were a Republican Party leader, I'd be feeling kinda smug right now. Now if only I could come up with a candidate who didn't seem … well, um … even worse.

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Stephen M. Walt

Back from the beach: My reading list

I did a lot of reading on vacation, some of it "professional" and some of it purely for pleasure.   Here's what I read and some of what I learned from them.

My first selection was Stephen Kinzer's new book Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future (Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010). Kinzer is a veteran foreign correspondent with a string of excellent books to his credit, and his latest is a timely argument for a fundamentally different orientation towards these two countries. Kinzer points out the democratic aspirations have deeper roots in both Turkey and Iran than in some of America's other Middle East allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia), and that America's long-term interests would be powerfully advanced by more positive relations with both powers. In particular, he makes a good case for deepening ties with Turkey and doing much more to re-engage Iran than the half-hearted (and possibly insincere) steps that the Obama administration has been willing to try. He also argues that the United States should distance itself somewhat from its current "special relationships" with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which he regards as outmoded vestiges of the Cold War, and have more normal relations with them instead.

Overall, Kinzer provides a nice corrective to the growing (and predictable) campaign to demonize Turkey, as well as the well-funded neoconservative chorus pounding the drums for war with Iran. Readers familiar with Turkish and Iranian history may not learn all that much that is new, but the current state of U.S. discourse on both subjects suggests that there are plenty of people in Washington who could learn from this book.

I followed that up with Ussama Makdisi's Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001 (Public Affairs, 2010). Makdisi is a distinguished historian at Rice University, who's written a fascinating and spirited account of the tragic deterioration in U.S. relations with most of the Arab and Islamic world. He chronicles the early U.S. engagement with the region -- mostly in the form of missionary and educational work -- and he shows that despite some occasional mis-steps, the United States was very well-regarded in the region at the end of World War II. U.S. ideals and achievements were widely admired, and its lack of an imperial past had created a large reservoir of good will.

Since then, of course, it's been pretty much all downhill. U.S. leaders rarely understood local dynamics in the Arab world and saw most events through crude Cold War lenses. Growing and increasingly unconditional support for Israel angered many Arabs, especially when indifference to the Palestinians' fate seemed so at odds with America's professed values.  Uncritical support for various Arab autocracies didn't help either, and the invasion of Iraq merely confirmed an anti-American narrative that had emerged over several decades. Despite a hopeful beginning, Barack Obama hasn't turned things around, and may even have made things worse in the region.

Makdisi is an American citizen who spent part of his childhood in Lebanon, before doing his undergraduate work Wesleyan and receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton. He clearly sees the erosion on U.S.-Arab ties as a tragedy that could have been avoided, and a certain righteous anger sometimes intrudes into his prose. But he doesn't whitewash Arab mistakes or malfeasance either, even while attempting to put their behavior in a proper context and helping Western readers understand how the world has looked to them. If you're still curious about "why they hate us?" this book is a good place to start.

I followed that up with William Pfaff's slim new volume The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy. Pfaff's book is a sweeping but well-informed indictment of the hubris that has suffused U.S. foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson.  Instead of seeking to make our republic secure and prosperous at home, and to defend the core liberties with which the United States was founded, U.S. statesmen (and women) have instead succumbed to the belief that security at home necessarily depends on transforming the rest of the world in our image. Pfaff argues that this is simply the American version of the same post-Enlightenment impulse that drove the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, and other apostles of global revolution; the urge to make "heaven on earth" in the here-and-now, instead of waiting for a heaven to come in the hereafter. 

Along the way, Pfaff has many wise things to say about the folly of the war in Iraq and the futility of our current efforts in Afghanistan, and he debunks a lot of the paranoid claptrap that has informed national security debates in the world's most powerful country. He provides a useful sketch of what a "non-interventionist" foreign policy would be; instead of trying to save the world, its primary responsibility would be "the well-being and quality of American life." What a radical notion (!), that we in America should worry first and foremost about the well-being of our fellow citizens, instead of engaging in ill-conceived crusades in countries we do not understand and where we are as likely to make things worse as to make things better.

One need not share all of his judgments to find this a sobering reflection on how we got to where we now are, and the difficulty we will have extricating ourselves from the current interventionist mindset. And I kept wondering why there is nobody remotely like Pfaff writing a regular column for a major mainstream publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal. We've got plenty of neocons and enthusiastic liberal internationalists, but why not at least one sober-minded realist? What are op-ed page editors and publishers so afraid of?

By the way, one theme emphasized in all three books is the importance of history. Virtually all policy problems have origins in the past--  and sometimes the deep past -- and how we think about past events often has a profound impact on how we judge the rightness or wrongness of different policy positions today. Pfaff notes that his "non-interventionist" foreign policy would rely heavily on "diplomacy and analytical intelligence, with particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems among nations are recurrent or have important recurring elements in them." Amen to that.

Of course, vacation isn't just about work, so I read a few novels too. In addition to my usual beach diet of Rex Stout, Carl Hiassen, and Dorothy Sayers, I also inhaled Alan Furst's new Spies of the Balkans (Random House, 2010) and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. Spies of the Balkans tells the story of a Greek police officer who gets involved in espionage in the months prior to the Germany invasion of Greece, playing a key role in facilitating the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany. I've been addicted to Furst ever since The Polish Officer, and while his formula has started to wear a bit thin, his ability to sketch a noir-ish scene remains wonderful and the sense of foreboding that suffuses his work is often gripping. No problem turning the pages, in short. Plus, his portrayal of an ambitious Gestapo officer with no ideological convictions but all-too-much ambition is right out of Hannah Arendt and Christopher Browning, and all the more chilling for that. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad is more of a literary romp, a touching, painful, at times funny, and beautifully written series of vignettes grounded (but not confined) to the punk rock scene in San Francisco and New York. It follows the interconnected lives of a group of musicians and record producers, their partners, children, employees, former friends, and sundry acquaintances, ranging over several continents and decades. I'd not read Egan before, and she has both an uncommon flair with language and an uncanny knack for giving her characters unique voices and world-views. If I could write like that ... well, I wouldn't be writing this.