This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
We are now nine weeks away from the midterm
elections in the United States. Much can happen in nine weeks, but if
the current polls are to be believed, U.S. President Barack Obama is
about to suffer a substantial political reversal. While we normally do
not concern ourselves with domestic political affairs in the United
States, when the only
global power is undergoing substantial political uncertainty, that
inevitably affects its behavior and therefore the dynamics of the
international system. Thus, we have to address it, at least from the
standpoint of U.S. foreign policy. While these things may not matter
much in the long run, they certainly are significant in the short run.
To begin thinking about this, we must bear three things in mind.
First, while Obama won a major victory in the Electoral College, he did
not come anywhere near a landslide in the popular vote. About 48 percent
of the voters selected someone else. In spite of the Democrats’
strength in Congress and the inevitable bump in popularity Obama
received after he was elected, his personal political strength was not
overwhelming. Over the past year, poll numbers indicating support for
his presidency have deteriorated to the low 40 percent range, numbers
from which it is difficult, but not impossible, to govern.
Second, he entered the presidency off balance. His early focus in the
campaign was to argue that the war in Iraq was the wrong war to fight
but that the war in Afghanistan was the right one. This positioned him
as a powerful critic of George W. Bush without positioning him as an
anti-war candidate. Politically shrewd, he came into office with an improving
Iraq situation, a deteriorating
Afghanistan situation and a commitment to fighting the latter war.
But Obama did not expect the global financial crisis. When it hit full
blast in September 2008, he had no campaign strategy to deal with it and
was saved by the fact that John McCain was as much at a loss as he was.
The Obama presidency has therefore been that of a moderately popular
president struggling between campaign promises and strategic realities
as well as a massive economic crisis to which he crafted solutions that
were a mixture of the New Deal and what the Bush administration had
already done. It was a tough time to be president.
Third, while in office, Obama tilted his focus away from the foreign
affairs plank he ran on to one of domestic politics. In doing so, he
shifted from the area where the president is institutionally strong to
the place where the president is institutionally weak. The Constitution
and American tradition give the president tremendous power in foreign
policy, generally untrammeled by other institutions. Domestic politics
do not provide such leeway. A Congress divided into two houses, a
Supreme Court and the states limit the president dramatically. The
founders did not want it to be easy to pass domestic legislation, and
tradition hasn’t changed that. Obama can propose, but he cannot impose.
Therefore, the United States has a president who won a modest victory
in the popular vote but whose campaign posture and the reality under
which he took office have diverged substantially. He has been drawn,
whether by inclination or necessity, to the portion of his presidency
where he is weakest and most likely to face resistance and defeat. And
the weaker he gets politically the less likely he is to get domestic
legislation passed, and the defeats will increase his weakness.
He does not, at the moment, have a great deal of public support to
draw on, and the level of vituperation from the extremes has reached the
level it was with George W. Bush. Where Bush was accused by the
extreme left of going into Iraq to increase profits for Halliburton and
the oil companies, Obama is being accused by the extreme right of trying
to create a socialist state. Add to this other assorted nonsense, such
as the notion that Bush engineered 9/11 or that Obama is a secret
Muslim, and you get the first whiff of a failed presidency. This is not
because of the prospect of midterm reversals — that has happened any
number of times. It is because Obama, like Bush, was off balance from
If Obama suffers a significant defeat in Congress in the November
elections, he will not be able to move his domestic agenda. Indeed,
Obama doesn’t have to lose either house to be rendered weak. The
structure of Congress is such that powerful majorities are needed to get
anything done. Even small majorities can paralyze a presidency.
Under these circumstances, he would have two choices. The first is to
go into opposition. Presidents go into opposition when they lose
support in Congress. They run campaigns against Congress for blocking
their agenda and blame Congress for any failures. Essentially, this was
Bill Clinton’s strategy after his reversals in 1994, and it worked in
1996. It is a risky strategy, obviously. The other option is to shift
from the weak part of the presidency to the strong part, foreign policy,
where a president can generally act decisively without congressional
backing. If Congress does resist, it can be painted as playing politics
with national security. Since Vietnam, this has been a strategy
Republican presidents have used, painting Democratic Congresses as weak
on national security.
There is a problem in Obama choosing the second strategy. For
Republicans, this strategy plays to their core constituency, for whom
national security is a significant issue. It also is an effective tool
to reach into the center. The same isn’t true for the Democrats. Obama’s
Afghanistan policy has already alienated the Democratic left wing,
and the core of the Democratic Party is primarily interested in economic
and social issues. The problem for Obama is that focusing on foreign
policy at the expense of economic and social issues might gain him some
strength in the center, but probably wouldn’t pick him up many
Republican votes and would alienate his core constituency.
This would indicate that Obama’s best strategy is to go into
opposition, government against Congress. But there are two problems with
this. One of the underlying themes of the Obama presidency is that he
is ineffective in getting his economic agenda implemented. That’s not
really true, given the successes he has had with health-care reform and
banking regulation, but it is still a theme. The other problem he has is
the sense that he has surged
in Afghanistan while setting a deadline for withdrawal and that his
Afghan policy is merely a political gesture.
Obama can’t escape national security issues. Clinton could. In 1996,
there were no burning issues in foreign policy. There are now two wars
under way. Obama can’t ignore them even if his core constituency has a
different agenda. Going into opposition against Congress could energize
his base, but that base is in the low 40s. He needs to get others on
board. He could do that if he could pass legislation he wanted, but the
scenario we are looking at will leave him empty-handed when it comes
time for re-election. His strongest supporters will see him as the
victim, but a victimized president will have trouble putting together a
winning coalition in 2012. He can play the card, but there has to be
We come back to foreign policy as a place where Obama will have to
focus whether he likes it or not. He takes his bearings from Franklin
Roosevelt, and the fact is that Roosevelt had two presidencies. One was
entirely about domestic politics and the other about foreign policy, or
the Depression and then World War II. This was not a political choice
for Roosevelt, but it was how his presidency worked out. For very
different reasons, Obama is likely to have his presidency bifurcated.
With his domestic initiatives blocked, he must turn to foreign policy.
Here, too, Obama has a problem. He ran his campaign, in the
Democratic tradition, with a vague anti-war theme and a heavy commitment
to the American-alliance structure. He was also a strong believer in
what has been called soft power, the power of image as opposed to that
of direct force. This has not been particularly successful. The
atmospherics of the alliance may be somewhat better under Obama than
Bush, but the Europeans
remain as fragmented and as suspicious of American requests under
Obama as they were under Bush. Obama
got the Nobel Prize but precious little else from the Europeans.
His public diplomacy initiative to the Islamic world also did not
significantly redefine the game. Relations
with China have improved but primarily because the United States
has given up on revaluation of the yuan. It cannot be argued that
Obama’s strategy outside the Islamic world has achieved much. It could
be claimed that any such strategy takes time, Obama’s problem is that he
is running out of political maneuvering room.
That leaves the wars that are continuing, Iraq and Afghanistan. We
have argued that Afghanistan
is the wrong war in the wrong place. It is difficult to know how
Obama views it, given his contradictory signals of increasing the number
of troops but setting a deadline for beginning their withdrawal. We
have argued that a complete withdrawal from Iraq without a settlement
with Iran or the decimation of Iran’s conventional forces would
be a mistake, but we don’t know, obviously, what Obama’s view on
this is. We do not know his view of the effect of the Afghan war on U.S.
strategic posture or on Pakistan, and we do not know his view of the
impact of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq on Iranian influence in the Persian
Let’s assume that he has clear views, which is likely for a
president, and he is playing a long and quiet game. This would not be a
bad strategy if he were stronger and had more time. But if the polls
hold he will be weaker and running out of time. It would therefore
follow that Obama will come out of the November election having to turn
over his cards on the only area where he can have traction — Iraq, Iran
and Afghanistan. The question is what he might do.
One option is to solve the Iraq problem by attacking Iran’s nuclear
facilities. This carries the risk, as I have said many times, of Iranian
retaliation in the Strait of Hormuz and a massive hit on the Western
economic revival. In that sense, a strike against Iranian nuclear
targets alone would be the riskiest. Far safer is a generalized air
campaign against both Iran’s nuclear and conventional capability.
But launching a new war, while two others go on, is strategically
risky. From a political point of view, it would alienate Obama’s
political base, many of whom supported him because he would not
undertake unilateral military moves. The Republicans would be most
inclined to support him, but most would not vote for him under any
circumstances. Plus, brilliant military strokes have the nasty habit of
bogging down just as mediocre ideas do. That would end the Obama
presidency. Clinton’s war in Kosovo was not an easy option for him
strategically or politically.
That leaves another option that we have suggested before, one that
would appeal both to Obama’s sensibility and to his political situation:
pulling a Nixon. In 1971, Richard Nixon reached out to China while
Chinese weapons were being used to kill American soldiers in Vietnam.
Roosevelt did the same with the Soviets in 1941. There is a tradition in
the United States of a diplomatic stroke with ideological enemies to
achieve strategic ends.
Diplomatic strokes appeal to Obama. They also would appeal to his
political base, while any agreement with Iran that would contribute to
an American withdrawal from Iraq and perhaps from Afghanistan would
appeal to the center. The Republicans would be appalled, but Obama can’t
win them over anyway so it doesn’t matter. Indeed, he can use their
hostility to strengthen his own base.
What the settlement with Iran might look like is murky at best.
Whether Iran has any interest in such a settlement is murkier still. But
if Obama gets hammered in the midterms, his domestic agenda will be
frozen. He doesn’t have the personal strength and credibility to run
against Congress for two years and then get re-elected. He retains his
power in foreign affairs but he has not gotten traction on a
multilateral reconstruction of America’s global popularity. He has two
wars ongoing, plus a major challenge from Iran. Attacking Iran from the
air might or might not work, and it could weaken him politically. That
leaves him with running against Congress or addressing the Middle East
with a diplomatic masterstroke.
It is difficult to know the ways of presidents, particularly one who
has tried hard to be personally enigmatic. But it is easier to measure
the political pressures that are confronting him and shaping his
decisions. I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict his actions, but I would
argue that he faces some unappetizing choices that he could solve with a
very bold move in foreign policy. His options on the domestic side will
disappear if the polls are right.