In the wake of President Obama’s “hot mike” admission to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that “after my election, I have more flexibility” to make concessions on missile defense, conservatives are insisting that once sworn in for a second term, Obama will unveil the Michael Moore–esque foreign policy he’s been concealing these last three years. Especially on Israel.
“Can you imagine the kind of pressure a reelected Obama will put on Israel,” declared Charles Krauthammer in his syndicated column. “The answer to the president's new posture toward Israel lies in his words to President Medvedev,” added Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in The Huffington Post. The president “cannot be trusted to refrain from exerting undue pressure on Israel after the election.”
A word to my right-wing friends: stop worrying. I’d be pleased if President Obama spent his second term pushing Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate seriously toward a two-state solution along the lines that Bill Clinton laid out in December 2000. (Though doing so would also require strong security guarantees to the Jewish state and pressure on the Palestinians to compromise on the right of return). But it’s not likely to happen, for three main reasons.
The first is that politics don’t end when a president wins reelection. Second-term presidents are still leaders of their party, subject to pressure from their colleagues in Congress. And they still realize that if they pick fights that weaken them politically, it limits their ability to accomplish other things.
This is especially true when it comes to Israel, the most politically fraught of American foreign-policy issues. Congress almost always resists presidential pressure on an Israeli government. It was Congress, after all, that helped keep Obama from pushing Benjamin Netanyahu hard on a settlement freeze in 2009 and that led Obama to pull back from his confrontation with Netanyahu after the Israeli government embarrassed the White House by announcing new building in East Jerusalem in March 2010.
What influenced Obama in those first two years wasn’t concern about his own reelection prospects as much as concern that he’d hurt Democratic fundraising for the 2010 midterms and undermine his broader congressional agenda. Those same concerns will weigh on White House officials in 2013 and 2014. In fact, with Republicans likely still in control of the House, congressional pressure may be even greater at the beginning of Obama’s second term than it was at the beginning of his first.
Look at the history of second-term presidential policymaking toward Israel. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did commit themselves more heavily to the peace process once reelected, but in neither case did they throw political caution to the wind. During Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister during the late 1990s, in fact, he proved quite effective in allying with American Jewish organizations and the Republican Congress to frustrate Clinton’s efforts to push him toward a Palestinian state. Although Clinton got Netanyahu to sign the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, for instance, he could not make Netanyahu implement it.
Which brings us to the second reason Obama is unlikely to be substantially more aggressive in his second term than in his first: the nature of the Israeli government he’s likely to face. Right now at least, it seems probable that Obama will be dealing with the same Israeli prime minister he’s been dealing with since 2009, a man who is happiest when he doesn’t have to discuss the Palestinian issue at all. And he’s also likely to confront Palestinian leaders more deferential to Palestinian public opinion than in the past, which may constrain their ability to make concessions. It’s one thing to take political risks when you think there’s a decent chance of success. It’s another to stir up a hornet’s nest in Washington when conditions aren’t ripe on the ground.
So which foreign-policy issue will Obama devote himself to in a second term? My guess is Asia. For one thing, he has more room for political maneuver. For another, it gives him the chance to be, in former secretary of state Dean Acheson’s famous phrase, “present at the creation.” Ever since the Cold War’s end, presidents have yearned to outline the vision that would define a new age. George H.W. Bush tried new world order. Bill Clinton mused about globalization. George W. Bush endlessly compared the doctrine of “preemption” he outlined after Sept. 11 to the containment policy Acheson and Harry Truman laid out at the dawn of the Cold War.
With foreign-policy experts increasingly sanguine about the threat from jihadist terror and the U.S. withdrawing its ground presence from the Middle East and the Hindu Kush, the obvious place for Obama to establish his legacy is East Asia. When historians look back at Washington foreign-policy debates in the early years of the 21st century, they’ll likely be puzzled by how underdeveloped public discussion about Asia was. It’s been clear since the 1990s that China would be America’s primary great-power competitor, and yet no president has defined for the American people a strategy for both cooperating with China to solve global problems and preserving U.S. influence in the Pacific. The president who does will have laid the groundwork for American foreign policy for decades to come, just as Truman did when he dedicated the United States to containing the Soviet Union.
As a lover of Israel who worries about its current path, I hope I’m wrong. I hope President Obama takes political risks to keep the two-state solution alive. But Obama’s an unsentimental guy. The unsentimental path is to focus on Asia, which is safer politically and historically, the bigger prize. And to let Benjamin Netanyahu make of Israel’s future what he will.