Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Stratfor: The World Looks at Obama After the U.S. Midterm Election

By George Friedman
November 04, 2010

The 2010 U.S. midterm elections were held, and the results were as expected: The Republicans took the House but did not take the Senate. The Democrats have such a small margin in the Senate, however, that they cannot impose cloture, which means the Republicans can block Obama administration initiatives in both houses of Congress. At the same time, the Republicans cannot override presidential vetoes alone, so they cannot legislate, either. The possible legislative outcomes are thus gridlock or significant compromises.

U.S. President Barack Obama hopes that the Republicans prove rigidly ideological. In 1994, after the Republicans won a similar victory over Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich attempted to use the speakership to craft national policy. Clinton ran for re-election in 1996 against Gingrich rather than the actual Republican candidate, Bob Dole; Clinton made Gingrich the issue, and he won. Obama hopes for the same opportunity to recoup. The new speaker, John Boehner, already has indicated that he does not intend to play Gingrich but rather is prepared to find compromises. Since Tea Party members are not close to forming a majority of the Republican Party in the House, Boehner is likely to get his way.

Another way to look at this is that the United States remains a predominantly right-of-center country. Obama won a substantial victory in 2008, but he did not change the architecture of American politics. Almost 48 percent of voters voted against him. Though he won a larger percentage than anyone since Ronald Reagan, he was not even close to the magnitude of Reagan’s victory. Reagan transformed the way American politics worked. Obama did not. In spite of his supporters’ excitement, his election did not signify a permanent national shift to the left. His attempt to govern from the left accordingly brought a predictable result: The public took away his ability to legislate on domestic affairs. Instead, they moved the country to a position where no one can legislate anything beyond the most carefully negotiated and neutral legislation.

Foreign Policy and Obama’s Campaign Position

That leaves foreign policy. Last week, I speculated on what Obama might do in foreign affairs, exploring his options with regard to Iran. This week, I’d like to consider the opposite side of the coin, namely, how foreign governments view Obama after this defeat. Let’s begin by considering how he positioned himself during his campaign.

The most important thing about his campaign was the difference between what he said he would do and what his supporters heard him saying he would do. There were several major elements to his foreign policy. First, he campaigned intensely against the Bush policy in Iraq, arguing that it was the wrong war in the wrong place. Second, he argued that the important war was in Afghanistan, where he pledged to switch his attention to face the real challenge of al Qaeda. Third, he argued against Bush administration policy on detention, military tribunals and torture, in his view symbolized by the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

In a fourth element, he argued that Bush had alienated the world by his unilateralism, by which he meant lack of consultation with allies — in particular the European allies who had been so important during the Cold War. Obama argued that global hostility toward the Bush administration arose from the Iraq war and the manner in which Bush waged the war on terror. He also made clear that the United States under Bush had an indifference to world opinion that cost it moral force. Obama wanted to change global perceptions of the United States as a unilateral global power to one that would participate as an equal partner with the rest of the world.

The Europeans were particularly jubilant at his election. They had in fact seen Bush as unwilling to take their counsel, and more to the point, as demanding that they participate in U.S. wars that they had no interest in participating in. The European view — or more precisely, the French and German view — was that allies should have a significant degree of control over what Americans do. Thus, the United States should not merely have consulted the Europeans, but should have shaped its policy with their wishes in mind. The Europeans saw Bush as bullying, unsophisticated and dangerous. Bush in turn saw allies’ unwillingness to share the burdens of a war as meaning they were not in fact allies. He considered so-called “Old Europe” as uncooperative and unwilling to repay past debts.

The European Misunderstanding of Obama

The Europeans’ pleasure in Obama’s election, however, represented a massive misunderstanding. Though they thought Obama would allow them a greater say in U.S. policy — and, above all, ask them for less — Obama in fact argued that the Europeans would be more likely to provide assistance to the United States if Washington was more collaborative with the Europeans.

Thus, in spite of the Nobel Peace Prize in the early days of the romance, the bloom wore off as the Europeans discovered that Obama was simply another U.S. president. More precisely, they learned that instead of being able to act according to his or her own wishes, circumstances constrain occupants of the U.S. presidency into acting like any other president would.

Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama’s position on Iraq consisted of slightly changing Bush’s withdrawal timetable. In Afghanistan, his strategy was to increase troop levels beyond what Bush would consider. Toward Iran, his policy has been the same as Bush’s: sanctions with a hint of something later.

The Europeans quickly became disappointed in Obama, especially when he escalated the Afghan war and asked them to increase forces when they wanted to withdraw. Perhaps most telling was his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, where he tried to reach out to, and create a new relationship with, Muslims. The problem with this approach was that that in the speech, Obama warned that the United States would not abandon Israel — the same stance other U.S. presidents had adopted. It is hard to know what Obama was thinking. Perhaps he thought that by having reached out to the Muslim world, they should in turn understand the American commitment to Israel. Instead, Muslims understood the speech as saying that while Obama was prepared to adopt a different tone with Muslims, the basic structure of American policy in the region would not be different.

Why Obama Believed in a Reset Button

In both the European and Muslim case, the same question must be asked: Why did Obama believe that he was changing relations when in fact his policies were not significantly different from Bush’s policies? The answer is that Obama seemed to believe the essential U.S. problem with the world was rhetorical. The United States had not carefully explained itself, and in not explaining itself, the United States appeared arrogant.

Obama seemed to believe that the policies did not matter as much as the sensibility that surrounded the policies. It was not so much that he believed he could be charming — although he seemed to believe that with reason — but rather that foreign policy is personal, built around trust and familiarity rather than around interests. The idea that nations weren’t designed to trust or like one another, but rather pursued their interests with impersonal force, was alien to him. And so he thought he could explain the United States to the Muslims without changing U.S. policy and win the day.

U.S. policies in the Middle East remain intact, Guantanamo is still open, and most of the policies Obama opposed in his campaign are still there, offending the world much as they did under Bush. Moreover, the U.S. relationship with China has worsened, and while the U.S. relationship with Russia has appeared to improve, this is mostly atmospherics. This is not to criticize Obama, as these are reasonable policies for an American to pursue. Still, the substantial change in America’s place in the world that Europeans and his supporters entertained has not materialized. That it couldn’t may be true, but the gulf between what Obama said and what has happened is so deep that it shapes global perceptions.

Global Expectations and Obama’s Challenge

Having traveled a great deal in the last year and met a number of leaders and individuals with insight into the predominant thinking in their country, I can say with some confidence that the global perception of Obama today is as a leader given to rhetoric that doesn’t live up to its promise. It is not that anyone expected his rhetoric to live up to its promise, since no politician can pull that off, but that they see Obama as someone who thought rhetoric would change things. In that sense, he is seen as naive and, worse, as indecisive and unimaginative.

No one expected him to turn rhetoric into reality. But they did expect some significant shifts in foreign policy and a forceful presence in the world. Whatever the criticisms leveled against the United States, the expectation remains that the United States will remain at the center of events, acting decisively. This may be a contradiction in the global view of things, but it is the reality.

A foreign minister of a small — but not insignificant — country put it this way to me: Obama doesn’t seem to be there. By that he meant that Obama does not seem to occupy the American presidency and that the United States he governs does not seem like a force to be reckoned with. Decisions that other leaders wait for the United States to make don’t get made, the authority of U.S. emissaries is uncertain, the U.S. defense and state departments say different things, and serious issues are left unaddressed.

While it may seem an odd thing to say, it is true: The American president also presides over the world. U.S. power is such that there is an expectation that the president will attend to matters around the globe not out of charity, but because of American interest. The questions I have heard most often on many different issues are simple: What is the American position, what is the American interest, what will the Americans do? (As an American, I frequently find my hosts appointing me to be the representative of the United States.)

I have answered that the United States is off balance trying to place the U.S.-jihadist war in context, that it must be understood that the president is preoccupied but will attend to their region shortly. That is not a bad answer, since it is true. But the issue now is simple: Obama has spent two years on the trajectory in place when he was elected, having made few if any significant shifts. Inertia is not a bad thing in policy, as change for its own sake is dangerous. Yet a range of issues must be attended to, including China, Russia and the countries that border each of them.

Obama comes out of this election severely weakened domestically. If he continues his trajectory, the rest of the world will perceive him as a crippled president, something he needn’t be in foreign policy matters. Obama can no longer control Congress, but he still controls foreign policy. He could emerge from this defeat as a powerful foreign policy president, acting decisively in Afghanistan and beyond. It’s not a question of what he should do, but whether he will choose to act in a significant way at all.

This is Obama’s great test. Reagan accelerated his presence in the world after his defeat in 1982. It is an option, and the most important question is whether he takes it. We will know in a few months. If he doesn’t, global events will begin unfolding without recourse to the United States, and issues held in check will no longer remain quiet.



SecondComingOfBast said...

One thing I always liked about Obama, though it was about the only damn thing I like about him, is that he made it clear to the European leaders that his presidency did not revolve around them. Or at least that's the way it seems.

Who knows, overall Obama might turn out to be such a horrible president it might have the positive effect of causing NATO to fall apart. If that's the case, that would make all his other failures worth something, at least.

roman said...

I found this reportto be a very insightful analysis of the European view of the Obama presidency by Mr. Friedman.
Here is the highlight snippet:
they thought Obama would allow them a greater say in U.S. policy
These few words explain the essence of this report.
At least in the aftermath of 9/11, why would Europeans still think this way?
A little background:
Since the end of WWII, it seems that Europeans, as a whole, have lost the will to act decisively in order to fascilitate any kind of change during an international crisis. It seems that whenever there is an international event or incident, their immediate reaction is to turn to Washington for direction. Yet, when that direction is initiated, the usual result is a kind of dissatisfaction followed by complaints. Let's face it, any action on the world stage is judged critically and the initiator, the USA being the last of the military superpowers, happens to be the biggest recipient of that judgement. This pattern of behaviour is the old "tired game" of keeping quiet when immediate action is called for and waiting for the usual initiator to "step up". Later, when things go sour, be ready to blame same.
European belly-aching aside, President Obama's pattern of foreign policy decisions have so far been the only "saving grace" of his administration to date.

SecondComingOfBast said...

"European belly-aching aside, President Obama's pattern of foreign policy decisions have so far been the only "saving grace" of his administration to date."

I have this rule of thumb-anytime a European leader complains about an American President, the American President in question must be doing something right.

Frank Partisan said...

Pagan: I have this rule of thumb-anytime a European leader complains about an American President, the American President in question must be doing something right.

That's called binary thinking.

Your opinion of NATO has nothing to do with the post.

Roman: The US is the top world power. That is the role it has chosen.

Every nation has its own interests. European nations can't even agree on the Euro rate. Europe is not a monolith.

SecondComingOfBast said...

WHAT? Any critique of American-European relations that doesn't take NATO into account is seriously lacking perspective. Everything that happens in that arena or that could possibly happen does so within that framework and boundary.

troutsky said...

The US has indicated it's willingness to throw Ireland, Germany, Spain, anybody - under the bus if that is what it takes to get it's currency devalued.

They are no help with Iran and the alliance is fragmenting.

Frank Partisan said...

Pagan: NATO has nothing to do with this post. A real NATO would have every country from Southern Europe to Russia.

Troutsky: There is a large amount of currency speculation occurring. People like Soros are making big $$.

Ducky's here said...

His foreign policy will simply be an extension of economic policy.

In this case he has to believe the Chinese an others are stooges as he simultaneously tries to sell them treasury debt an devalue the dollar.

The jury came in on "quantitative easing" pretty quickly and everyone from Germany to South Korea told us to go screw ourselves. So this idea that other nations are going to finance the predator drone strikes and Wall Street shenanigans is over. We are broke and on our own. Pretty soon we'll be sitting on the curb with a begging bowl and The Black Bush will be writing his memoirs.

Frank Partisan said...

Ducky: I agree.

The currency wars is creating another speculation bubble. As of now people like Soros, are making a fortune on currency speculation.

Slave Revolt said...

This analysis is geared toward the "paying audience": the delusional US political, economic, and military class that has driven the bus off the road after a drunken night of frat-boy debauchery that has lasted a couple of centuries.

Obama never endeavored to rule from the left, and the US population is not center-right as per their broad goals. The managerial classes are another matter.

These analysts make the mistake of confusing propaganda with the abiding tone of belief shared by the bewildered herd, the US public.

Your analysis would be more cogent if you were more skeptical of the flavor of the day koolaid that these pompous fuck-ups pimp as part of their business model.

Follow the money and the long-term goals--then you will see the time-worn patterns of confusion and group-think.

roman said...

I finally agree with the Duck on one observation. Obama should resign and start writing an update of his illustious accomplishments to date as a follow-up to his previous biography. "Dreams, part II" has a nice ring to it.
This will, once again, challenge his brilliant intellectual mind more fully than his tenure as POTUS.
At this point even the wild and wacky Biden would be an acceptable replacement. It would finally end the two years of amatuerish professorial pontifications resulting in one calamity after another.

Frank Partisan said...

SlaveRevolt: I agree to some extent.

The country isn't right-center. Now it seems to bounce between parties. Each party has less room to maneuver.

Stratfor is smart analysis, but are not friends.

Roman: Bush43?

SecondComingOfBast said...

Not only is the country right center, it is becoming more conservative, thanks to Obama. Ren, you just can't accept the obvious facts on the ground. If you have the stomach for it, you need to look at all the statehouses that have gone Republican, and while you're at it, look at all the state legislatures that have gone Republican. There are more statehouses and legislatures under the control of the GOP both by numbers and by actual percentage, than at any other time in history.

The GOP enjoyed their biggest victory in the House of Representatives since 1938. As for the Senate, all of the ones where Democrats maintained their seats were in solidly Democratic states, while the GOP nevertheless picked up six extra seats.

Not bad for a party you wrote off two years ago as all but finished.

And this is just the beginning. As they say, you ain't seen nuthin' yet.

Jonathan Cronin said...

Had to chime in since Stratfor is based here in my beloved hometown of Austin, Texas.

I'd have to say that the House victories for the GOP in the 2010 Midterm elections has absolutely nothing to do with the country allegedly being oriented 'right-center'. On the contrary, it has everything to do with a two-party stranglehold on American politics...and the American left not organizing and countering the Tea Party freak show independently from the Democrats. Because of this, Tea Party rhetoric shaped, in large part, the discussion for the 2010 election.

If you're a mainstream voter tethered to either of the two parties, you probably feel like that ball in a pin-ball machine...bounced around, deflected, used and abused...then you vote for the party that you swore was a criminal enterprise just two years prior.

Frank Partisan said...

I have been getting over depression lately. Hard to keep up with the blog. I'll hang in there.

Pagan: When reformists don't bring reform, peoople jump to the other party. I'm seeing a back and forth, with each party having less room to move.

Jonathin: Thank you for your comment.

I agree with you.

I would add we need a labor party.

Slave Revolt said...


I will come up their and cheer you up: i'll film Ventura and Garrisson Keeler double teaming your ass. Norm Coleman will officiate.

True bipartisanship visa vis unreconstructed Trotskyists--with the vigor and spirit of macho third-party participation added to the mix.

I'll quote Chomsky with the tone of a heckler, to add nuance and color.


Get back to form soon boy! It gets better, compadre.

Frank Partisan said...

Slave Revolt: Thank you.

I'm feeling better.

I've discovered the "relaxation Response" breathing program. It is amazing.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Pagan, I am trying to contact you via email on your blogger profile but having no joy, could you drop me an email please?