by Paul R. Pillar
“My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter, and I’m looking forward to it.” — Barack Obama, December 19, 2014
One should be careful about drawing conclusions concerning the intentions and state of mind of a president based on when he takes certain major actions. The background to almost any presidential action involves a bureaucratic process within the U.S. government and, with foreign policies, negotiations or consultations with other governments. Sometimes a step is taken at a particular time because that’s when the processes and the negotiations happened to be completed. Sometimes timing is largely a matter of making room on a crowded plate with other issues demanding high-level attention. Nonetheless, President Obama’s actions over the past several weeks are consistent with the analysis that he has become a more politically liberated and thus more energized national leader since the mid-term elections, which were the last elections which will put anyone into national-level office while Mr. Obama remains president. If the president really has made such a transition, any American who would rather see broader pursuit of the national interest take precedence over a narrow focus on the next election ought to be pleased about that.
Mr. Obama is putting the lie to accusations that he is a timid and indecisive leader, and revealing such accusations to be merely a combination of general Obama-bashing and specific preferred policies of the accuser. Many of his opponents who call for more assertive U.S. policies overseas equate assertiveness with bombing somebody rather than, say, asserting the right for the United States to practice diplomacy with anyone it wants or getting in front of efforts to keep Earth habitable. Many who say that people and governments overseas yearn for more forceful U.S. action (whiny Gulf Arab monarchies with their sectarian objectives seem to be a favorite reference point in this regard) are merely pushing certain narrow agendas on salient topics such as the Syrian civil war, while refusing to recognize the far broader international approval that Mr. Obama’s recent actions have received.
Even if the president does not have any more elections to worry about, domestic politics still will have a lot to do with what he can or cannot achieve. That there will be continued obstructionism in Congress is a safe bet, especially given that the results of those same mid-term elections did not give the obstructionists any new incentive to change their ways. One of Mr. Obama’s responses to this reality is to make the fullest possible use of his executive authority where constructive legislative action is unlikely. Another thing the president has going for him is that once he takes specific action, this clarifies the choices between those actions and the alternatives in a way that drains credibility from opponents who try to argue that the president’s actions are against the national interest—and also clarifies likely electoral costs for opponents who are focusing on the next election—even on subjects where obstructionists might fare better in a debate waged in more abstract terms. Timothy Egan has made a similar observation this way:
“Are Republicans really going to spend the first year of their new majority trying to undo everything the president has done—to roll back the clock? Will they defend isolation of Cuba against the wishes of most young Cuban-Americans? Will they restore a family-destroying deportation policy, when Obama’s de-emphasis on sending illegal immigrants home has already given him a 15-point boost among Latinos? Will they take away health insurance from millions who never had it before? Will they insist that nothing can be done on climate change, while an agreement is on the table for the world’s two biggest polluters, the United States and China, to do something significant?”
If Mr. Obama really is going to make things interesting as well as productive for U.S. interests in the first few months of his fourth quarter and not just in the closing weeks of the third, two decision points in particular will bear watching—in addition to watching whether the president keeps the heat on, so to speak, on the problem of climate change. Taking the correct course of action at each of these decision points would involve, like the opening to Cuba, a removal of outdated and damaging impediments to U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy.
One of the two decision points concerns whether the president will inject into the U.S. negotiating position the flexibility that will be needed to conclude an agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Although these are multilateral negotiations, the most critical decisions will be made by the president of the United States and the supreme leader of Iran. Of course there will be vigorous efforts from the same quarters that have been trying all along to undermine the negotiations to destroy whatever agreement may be reached, specifically through Congressional action. There will be cries about giving up the store and making too many concessions. But that will happen no matter what the terms of the agreement. And once an agreement is in hand and the implications between upholding the agreement and discarding it become clearer than ever, the issue will become like the others on Egan’s list, with no reasonable case to be made in favor of discarding the deal, and discarding along with it any special restraints on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program.
The other issue to watch is the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—where Mr. Obama’s actions so far have mostly been limited to giving John Kerry a pat on the back and wishing him luck. For American politicians this issue is the grandaddy of all contradictions between doing what is in U.S. interests and bending in another direction because of fear of what will happen at the next election. If Barack Obama really does feel liberated by not having to think about the next election, this issue presents the toughest test of that proposition. And if anyone doubts what this festering conflict does not only to Palestinians but to Israel, and why it cannot be allowed to fester indefinitely, a good corrective read is Roger Cohen’s most recent column.
There may actually be several decision points that this subject will present to Mr. Obama over the next two years, but an immediate issue concerns a draft resolution introduced at the United Nations Security Council on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by a date certain sometime in the next couple of years. The language of the resolution will undergo more discussion and change before it is put to a vote. But if it basically says that the 47-year occupation has to end and that there should be established within the next couple of years a Palestinian state with boundaries negotiated by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, such a resolution will be worth supporting. It certainly should not be vetoed.
No such resolution will, by itself, bring a Palestinian state an inch closer to realization on the ground. Nor will it provide shortcuts to the tough bargaining that still will be necessary between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. But for the United States not to veto such a resolution, and even more if it actively supports it, will be a salient and significant development—a much-noticed departure from past unfortunate practice—that will at least bring resolution of the conflict closer.
This gets to the standards that President Obama ought to apply in assessing where his leadership can accomplish things and thus where he should make bold moves on any topic. Accomplishment in most cases will not mean wrapping up a problem in the next two years. In most cases it will mean imparting new momentum to a necessarily longer term process. This clearly is the case with the climate problem; the agreement with China on reduction of emissions is an accomplishment because it imparts momentum to a process that will require many years and broad multilateral participation. Even most of the benefit of the initiative on Cuba will not materialize during the rest of Mr. Obama’s term. The old U.S. policy toward Cuba had over half a century to show that it does not work; the new one deserves more than two years to show that it does (especially if Congressional resistance undermines the new policy).
And as for the Palestinian problem, for the United States not to oppose a UN resolution that explicitly criticizes the Israeli occupation will spur processes that are necessary to resolve the problem, even if it is not resolved in the next two years. The change in the U.S. posture will send a strong message to the rest of the world, ranging from extremists who repeatedly cite the unresolved conflict and the U.S. role in it as a reason for their anti-U.S. violence, to Israeli voters who have to think long and hard about the path their country is on. The message is that the United States realizes—and is willing to act on that realization—that indefinite continuation of this conflict on terms set by the right-wing rulers of Israel is contrary to U.S. interests, as well as being contrary to the interests of Palestinians and of Israel itself.
This article was first published by The National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.