Thursday, November 13, 2008
The Gathering Storm
This is not a screed. It's an attempt to be measured and objective.
INAUGURATION DAY PLUS ONE. Every U.S. president has two presidencies: the one he planned on and the one he actually gets. The second usually differs radically from the first because it is driven by events rather than plans. It may well be that President Obama is in for the rudest of shocks, a four-year term in office so dominated by foreign policy crises that they will eat up the time and energy required for massive domestic change initiatives.
There are a couple of points worth noting here. American presidents almost never accomplish the laundry lists of initiatives they describe in campaigns and state of the union speeches. Like corporate CEOs, they are most successful when they focus sharply on a short list of top priorities and give them the close managerial attention needed to obtain a result something like the original intent. Typically, the best time for big domestic initiatives is the first term, when momentum can be generated during the honeymoon period every president has, to one degree or another, with congress. By the second term, presidents and congress are, also typically, weary enough with one another that the president begins to look abroad for foreign policy opportunities -- peace deals, trade treaties, and other legacy items that don't require as much interaction with Capitol Hill.
There are obviously exceptions to this pattern, but the relative stability of the Cold War era and its immediate aftermath allowed two-term presidents the luxury of putting much of the world on hold while they spent their early years in office trying to fulfill their biggest domestic campaign promises. Reagan never even met with Soviet leaders during his first term, for example, and Clinton saved the Kosovo intervention, his Irish peace initiative ands his Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for the years after he had made some progress on "it's the economy, stupid." Even George W. Bush managed to get the ball rolling on his top domestic priorities before 9/11 swept the table clean of his original agenda: His tax cuts, the "No Child Left Behind" education bill, and the new drug entitlement for seniors squeaked through in his first term.
Interestingly, the exceptions tend to prove the rule. Jimmy Carter focused disproportionately on foreign affairs -- brokering the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and destabilizing friendly dictators in Nicaragua and Iran -- with the result that Iran and unaddressed woes in the domestic economy blew up in his face and cost him a second term. George Bush the Elder spent a disproportionate amount of his one term in office turning back Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, which made him seem too remote from the lives of average Americans and caused them to vote him out in favor of Clinton.
It's clearly the hope of the Obama administration that they'll be able to repeat the Reagan-Clinton formula. A principal stated reason for Obama's determination to withdraw from Iraq, for example, is to end the distraction it represents from addressing domestic priorities. He wants to reallocate the money, time, and attention that Iraq has consumed over the past five years to improving the lives of poor and middle class Americans. His avowed intention to trade unilateral action overseas for talks and multilateral negotiations also, in this context, represents a belief that the world can still be put on hold -- stalled, if you will -- for enough time to accomplish key reforms at home.
But there's a good chance that the universal dislike of George W. Bush has caused even the smartest of the experts to miss a big, and ironic, hallmark of his presidency. The unpredictable and much despised cowboy has, to a very significant extent, done what should be impossible in the chaotic post-Cold War, post-9/11 political environment -- he has put the world on hold in such a way that it resembles the time when flare-ups could routinely be prevented from ballooning into disasters by the grim controlling caution of American and Soviet leaders determined to avoid fatal confrontations with each other.
This relative quiet in the global political environment is not like the stasis of the Cold-War. It just looks like it in an oddly reassuring way. North Korea goes rogue and then pulls back at the last minute. Iran blusters and threatens but keeps returning eventually to the circular but comforting delay of more talks with the Europeans. Hizbollah, Hamas, and other deadly firebugs in the middle east keep playing with matches but put them aside just before they light a wildfire that can't be contained. Russia flexes its muscles and makes reckless moves in eastern Europe but then ever so slowly subsides into bellicose calm. Pakistan looks ready to implode into civil war but somehow elects a fragile government to replace Musharraf, and the world's most unstable nuclear power keeps limping along. That's how the world has worked throughout most of our lives, and it's how it will keep on working, right? There is time to deal with problems in a fairly orderly way. If he's steady behind the wheel, President Obama will be able to steer us safely through it all and find the time to do the necessary things at home before events appropriate his agenda. Right?
Maybe. But probably not. When Bush leaves office, it will be like the marshal turning in his badge and riding out of Dodge City. It's the worldwide fear of how the United States will react that has kept the global pot simmering just below a boil. Even if they suspect that Bush won't call in airstrikes or a battalion of marines in response to a truly provocative act, they don't know it for sure. And so they hesitate, they think and think again, and then they wait. What are they waiting for? For Bush to be gone. As he will be in January 2009.
George W. Bush has been a one-man Cold War, the kind of stabilizing influence created by the perception of a danger that transcends local, personal rivalries and grudges. That's the irony of our current situation. And it's a truly colossal irony. Americans are tired of being not liked around the world. Obama promises to change that. He proclaims his intention to conclude the American Cold War against the world. He will no longer act hastily and unpredictably. He will put away the big stick. He will be reasonable. And we are buoyed and reaffirmed in our support for him by the fact that the world cheers when we elect him to the presidency.
Why are they cheering? Because things will slowly get better in international affairs as the civilized norms of traditional diplomacy are gradually restored to their proper place? Or because there will be a sudden sizeable window of time in which a young, naive, and inexperienced president of the United States will be trying to do too many things at once -- learn the job, staff his administration, resolve an economic crisis, and pursue an extraordinarily ambitious domestic legislative agenda -- leaving the door open for bold moves around the globe he can't possibly respond to effectively?
There are already numerous signs that it's the latter. The world is about done with waiting. They're getting ready to rumble. Maliki is preparing to push back hard against the Obama administration in Iraq. The rattle of sabers in Iran is growing ominously louder. The other players in the middle east -- Syria, Israel, the Palestinians -- are already nearly at the boiling point The always unsubtle Russians have been signaling their intentions for months and getting bolder by the day. Movements under the surface of the uneasy relationship between Taiwan and China are threatening to erupt into sudden crisis. Add to this mix the worldwide economic uncertainty, the economic desperation caused by plunging oil prices in oil-exporting autocracies like Venezuela and Russia, and the growing instability of regimes in North Korea and Cuba, where the age and ill health of long-time dictators could cause collapse or civil war at any moment, and you have a recipe for multiple massive international crises within months or even days of Obama's inauguration.
Has anyone given much thought to Joe Biden's odd candor about the "testing" of Barack Obama? What he didn't say was that the consequences of such testing might be so serious and long-lasting that they could entirely co-opt the Obama presidency. He might find himself putting out fires around the world full-time from day one.
I hope I'm wrong. But I might not be. The Obama honeymoon that begins in January could quickly turn into a nightmare for everyone. If he can talk his way out of it all as he seems to believe, good for him. But there's reason to doubt that's the way world works right now, if it ever did.
Pray for him. Or if you can't do that, pray for us.