Democratic foreign policy observers predict that a weakened domestic political position will make Obama inclined to be more selective in choosing when and with whom to engage, focusing on opportunities where he can demonstrate success over more ambitious but less certain efforts, such as trying to achieve Middle East peace.
They also predict a more populist president focused more on job creation than the globe-trotting and triumphal speech making in Cairo, Istanbul, Prague, Moscow, Beijing and Ghana that Obama took time for in his first year.
From his seemingly stillborn efforts to revive Middle East peace talks to his ambitious arms control agenda, the sense that Obama has been weakened at home could factor into the calculations of foreign leaders sizing up the president and determining whether they should risk their own domestic political standing to accommodate U.S. policy.
“What really counts is the perception among friends and adversaries of whether or not he can deliver,” says veteran Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. “Obama’s premier legislative accomplishment — that would legitimize his political standing in the U.S. — is now literally up for grabs. There’s no doubt that he has been badly wounded.”
Some of the foreign coverage of the Massachusetts race certainly came to that conclusion.
“Obama’s loss is Netanyahu’s gain,” argued Aluf Benn of Israeli daily Haaretz, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “For nine months, Netanyahu held his ground against pressure by Obama. ... From now on, Obama will be much more dependent on support from his Republican adversaries, who are supporters and friends of Netanyahu.”
“The world bids farewell to Obama,” mourned German magazine Der Spiegel.
The White House discounted any foreign policy impact to the lost Senate seat.
“The president’s responsibility to protect the American people is in no way affected by politics,” National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer told POLITICO. “His national security agenda is driven by America’s national security interests and not by anything else.”
Likewise, Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that it a was mistake to think Obama was “mortally wounded” by Republican Scott Brown’s victory. But he nonetheless foresees an impact: “The question becomes: How does the president respond to this? Is he more selective in his priorities, and what are those priorities?”
Maybe by being more selective in the problems he tackles.
"Hypothetically, if the Iranians or Arabs and Israelis presented the president with the prospect of success, then what happens in Massachusetts does not affect him in the least,” Woodrow Wilson Center’s Miller said. But failing that, “he cannot look for additional vulnerabilities.”
“What he can’t afford now is the foreign policy equivalent of a Massachusetts’ Democratic meltdown.”
Former Clinton administration speechwriter Heather Hurlburt predicts the loss of his veto-proof majority in the Senate will reinforce a trend “over the last six months, ... of [the White House saying], ‘Let’s pick spots very carefully.’ Rather than backing down, ‘let’s be sure to pick the right battles.’”
An administration foreign policy official agreed that any effect would be indirect — but argued that wouldn’t make it any less real.
“To the extent that 67, not 60, is the relevant number when it comes to the Senate and U.S. foreign policy, the Brown victory carries less direct impact on the Obama foreign policy agenda than on his domestic policy goals,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to the number of Senate votes needed to ratify treaties such as the one on strategic arms reduction in the final stages of negotiation with Russia.
“It is the more indirect impact that may prove more significant,” the official continued. “Will Republicans now be emboldened to hand the president another political defeat by rejecting what the White House will tout as a significant foreign policy achievement? …. Will Republicans start finding a more aggressive voice in criticizing the president's overall handling of U.S. foreign policy? Will they start asserting he is too soft on Russia and China? Too hard on Israel? Will there be a renewed clamor for military action against the Iranian regime?”
There were already signs this week that congressional Republicans were raising the volume on familiar criticism that the Democratic approach to counterterrorism is overly legalistic and insufficiently hard-nosed.
Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, seized on testimony by Obama’s intelligence chief Dennis Blair describing how Nigerian terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was questioned by the FBI, provided a lawyer and read his Miranda rights after his arrest in Detroit.
“The Obama “administration [should] change course from their pre-9/11 mentality of treating terrorists like common criminals,” Bond argued.
Another Washington Democratic foreign policy hand said the Obama White House is likely to disengage from extraneous foreign policy engagements in stages: “By early-midsummer, the political folks will tell the policy folks that it’s only Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan that is on the president’s schedule,” he predicted.
Leading to the midterms, he added, the president is going “to be on the plane" to every political battlefield across the country. If the Democrats suffer serious losses in November, the message from the White House political shop is likely to be more pointed: “The president is now a war president and an economy president.”