Small World: Obama’s competing policies

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Every modern president faces a trade-off between what he wants to achieve at home and what he must deal with abroad. FDR was an exception: the vast expenditures required to fight the second World War produced the impetus to lift us out of Depression when other stimuli had failed to restart the economy.

For the others, however, there was the choice of guns or butter. LBJ and Nixon thought they could manage both: waging war in Vietnam while maintaining generous programs at home (Medicare, War on Poverty, War on Drugs). They failed and left behind high inflation and a stagnant economy. The second Bush was, of course, the champ of spending freely. Two wars, tax cuts, an expensive drug program, costly Pentagon budgets and a balloon and bust economy were his legacy.

Now, it’s Obama’s time to be tested. Can he manage the demands from abroad without endangering what he wants to do at home? So far, he seems to be avoiding the foreign precipices and dismal swamps. In his first term, he won health care reform while starting to end commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. But, the game’s far from over.

Like every “liberal” Democrat president, Obama automatically inherits a reputation for being soft on national security — afraid to spend freely on defense and intelligence, to commit troops, to play the Great Power. That’s not an entirely bad thing when much of the public is war weary. Yet, nobody loves a perceived weakling. It seems typical of our Great Compromiser that he would seek the middle ground: No troops to fight, but air support and supplies in Libya, Mali and Syria. An air power demonstration and anti-missile deployment when North Korea goes rhetorically berserk. (A bit of geopolitical irony: deploying anti-missile missiles that don’t work against a North Korean threat that doesn’t exist.)

It’s also typical of Obama that he prefers the drone for targeted killings, rather than risk U.S. casualties in hunting down alleged terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Act tough, but at arm’s length.

The trickiest set of Obama’s choices are in the Israel-Iran and Israel-Palestine arenas. Obama started out with noble aspirations, perhaps not fully aware of the power that Israel exercises inside the United States, especially on Capitol Hill (otherwise known as Israeli-occupied territory). With Iran, Obama proposed diplomatically to bargain away the risk of a nuclear threat. He didn’t allow for the pride and nationalism of ever-distrustful Iranians. The result is stalemate and an unhappy Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who seems eager for the United States to exercise military muscle in his defense. War with Iran would be the last thing Obama wants, for it would bring ruin to the fragile United States and world economies.

To keep Netanyahu moderately quiet and his fans in the Congress subdued, Obama is obliged to hang tough with Tehran. Continuing negotiations with no result (certainly not a deal that might displease Netanyahu) seems to be the answer. Talk, talk and more talk without results, while back on Capitol Hill a chance is preserved that Obama will get a budget, maybe some gun control and immigration reform from a Congress that isn’t stirred up by the hard-line pro-Israel lobby.

For the same reason, don’t expect the administration to pull off a peace deal with the Palestinians. Obama came to the task apparently convinced that he could persuade or bully Netanyahu into a freeze on illegal settlements in the occupied territories. He learned the lesson of others before him: Don’t mess with the Israelis, they can outgun you on your own turf.

The danger of disguising an empty foreign policy agenda behind fancy speeches and fake negotiations means threats are not ended but only deferred. Putting off risky and hard foreign policy challenges, however, only lays up more aggravated problems for the future… but they will be the task of another president.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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