Big Risks for Obama Abroad

Andrew E. Busch

July 1, 2009

With the unemployment rate at 9.5 percent, the federal deficit exploding, big tax increases on the horizon, stock market gains since March stalling and receding, and an estimated price tag for health care reform in excess of $1 trillion for the first ten years, public attention has recently focused on increasing questions about President Obama’s economic program. Several polls have shown his public approval dipping into the mid-50 percent range, with the Rasmussen poll showing only 52 percent approval.

These concerns will undoubtedly continue to percolate for the foreseeable future. Indeed, criticism will mount if (as seems likely) unemployment breaches the 10 percent threshold and as details about the health plans working their way through Congress become better known.

However, it may be a mistake to believe that the economy poses the greatest threat to Obama. While an unambiguously horrible economic situation would probably sink his reelection in 2012—and his leverage with Congress well before that—several factors could mitigate the damage. First and most obviously, the economy will likely recover at least a bit by 2012, even if not by the midterm elections in 2010. The picture is less likely to be unambiguously bad than it is to be mixed. Second, Obama can always argue that he inherited a bad economy and should not be held accountable for economic shortcomings. This argument will have less traction as time passes, but it will have a long half-life. Third—a factor not unrelated to the other two—the chain of causation from cause to effect in economic policy is not always easy for voters to untangle.

Consequently, at least as great a threat is posed to Obama from a different direction: the broader world where he is paradoxically, if one is to believe press accounts, more popular than he is in America.

It should not be forgotten that it was not the economy alone that made Jimmy Carter a one-term president. Rather, it was the deteriorating economy in combination with a series of foreign mishaps and crises that made the president look weak, naïve, and vacillating. In our current context, in contrast with the economy, Obama inherited a world that was not nearly as bad as it may well get in the next few years. There are at least five places where one can already see the potential for unpleasant and perhaps politically-debilitating surprises:

Two ongoing wars. Obama inherited enormous forward momentum in Iraq and a stalemate in Afghanistan. Any deterioration in either of those arenas will be laid at his feet.

Iran. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently shared his opinion that Iran may be as little as one year away from obtaining nuclear weapons, and that the window is rapidly shutting on any possibility of stopping it. In the meantime, Obama has bet everything on engagement with a regime that seems single-minded in its determination to proceed. Should the mullahs succeed, Obama’s strategy will seem to have been not only naïve but extraordinarily dangerous. Iranian nukes could make the Iranian hostage crisis look tame by comparison. If Israel takes military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program and the U.S. acquiesces, Obama will look weak and superfluous. If Israel takes action and Obama objects, he will look like he cares more about the opinion of the mullahs than about the survival of Israel.

Russia. Obama’s recent summit meeting in Moscow showed the President once again to have been overly enamored of realpolitik, as if the main problem facing the world was the aging nuclear arsenal of the two former Cold War adversaries. As we now know, that was not the main problem facing the world even during the Cold War—the barbarism and aggressive impulses of the Leninist dictatorships was. Yet nothing in the summit resolved the issue of Moscow’s aggressive stance toward Georgia, or its slightly-less-aggressive posture toward Ukraine. To the contrary, Russia continues to press ever-harder against Georgia’s pro-Western president. If Obama’s 1970s-style obsession with arms control leads Russia to believe it can strike again, he will look more than a little like Jimmy Carter in the days after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Latin America. The crisis in Honduras has shown Obama to be like Jimmy Carter in another way, saving his moralism only for America’s friends (or the enemies of its enemies). There is no question that Hugo Chavez is an enemy of the United States, as he is an enemy of our friends in the region and indeed of genuine democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela itself. He seeks to extend his influence as far as it will go. Obama’s response thus far has been to turn his back on Colombia, our staunchest ally in the region, and to back without reservation the return of Chavez’s ally Manuel Zelaya to the presidency of Honduras despite Zelaya’s blatantly anti-constitutional actions. There is no telling what sort of whirlwind the United States will reap in the region from Obama’s refusal to face squarely the strategic challenge posed by Chavez, but if one develops there will be little question where to place accountability.

This listing of festering problems does not include the ever-present danger that another mass-casualty terrorist attack could take place on American soil. Obama has limited his political vulnerability after such an attack by relenting on many of his hard-left campaign promises regarding security. Nevertheless, the longer such an attack takes place after January 20, 2009, the more likely it is that voters will make the obvious comparison with George W. Bush’s post 9-11 success.

Altogether, Obama has placed himself on a course in foreign affairs which will leave him wide open to highly-damaging charges of naiveté or incompetence if things go wrong. And it seems probable that his policies themselves make it more likely that something or some things will go wrong. If and when that happens, voters will notice, and he will not be able to blame Bush or greedy Wall Street bankers.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, and Ann and Herbert W. Vaughan Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.