How Obama can avoid becoming George Bush

A master of foreign policy must confront the march of the economic morons to evade the 41st president's fate

Robert Shrum

With the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's evil kleptocracy, Barack Obama is arguably the most successful foreign policy president since George H. W. Bush. And we know what happened to him.

First, Obama's successes: The restoration of respect for America abroad; the negotiation and ratification of the new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia; his resolve to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by a date certain — despite opposition within the Pentagon — and without yielding to those in his own party who insist that the only way forward is instant retreat. He's increasingly inclined to the Biden approach of relying on special operations and drones to counter the terrorist threat that infests the Pakistan–Afghanistan border, while skillful diplomacy with India has lessened the odds of a potential nuclear conflict on the subcontinent.

The promise of special ops was stunningly proven in the boldest decision of the president who, when he made it, surely realized that he had the loneliest job in the world — because failure would have left the United States looking hopeless and Obama looking hapless as commander-in-chief. Indeed, after 10 years, America seemed hopeless in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. With a cool hand and no drama — the night before, the president regaled a Washington press dinner as if he didn't have a care in the world — Obama ventured a risky mission to capture or kill the elusive mastermind of 9/11. The mission was finally accomplished, but not with the bluster of Bush 43.

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Barack Obama is arguably the most successful foreign policy president since George H. W. Bush. And we know what happened to him.

The president had already orchestrated American influence with the Egyptian army to secure the uprising there — without the taint of overt American intervention and with a calibrated sense of safeguarding vital interests while standing on the right side of history. He took a similar approach in Libya in the face of withering and often opportunistic criticism from Republicans. Jon Huntsman outright opposed the operation; Newt Gingrich was for tough action until the president acted, then against it altogether, and then insisted that it wasn't tough enough. Almost certainly sincere, but instinctively inimical to Obama, John McCain, who never met a war he wouldn't escalate, bashed Obama's timidity. The shilly-shallying Mitt Romney finally settled on a copycat position, assailing the president for "leading from behind."

The right strategy in Libya was to assist a homegrown revolution, not subsume it — to enlist NATO and Arab allies to help the anti-Gadhafi forces help themselves. This was more than burden-sharing in name only, the pattern of the past generation; U.S. air power was there in force at critical moments, particularly at the outset, but America didn't carry most of the load.

Predictably, Obama's GOP adversaries now celebrate the outcome while refusing to give the president a scintilla of credit. As E.J. Dionne observed in The Washington Post, Obama achieved the objective "in less than six months [with] no American casualties"; but that "was obviously not good enough" — so obvious as to make their low motives transparent — for "opponents who won't be happy until [the president's] back teaching law school".

Obama's foreign policy offers a conspicuous and happy contrast to the blundering, world-alienating and bogged down war-making of his predecessor. Yes, there are a host of dangers unresolved — from North Korea to a fragile and fraught Afghanistan, to the al Qaeda redoubt of the Arabian Peninsula. The president also has to manage as best he can the worst legacy of the Iraq war, which removed that country as a counterweight to Iran and opened the way for a Shiite crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea. But national security is a project that's never finished. What's remarkable is the progress Obama has made, with a trademark deftness and subtlety which shows you don't have to be loud to be strong — or successful. As we've learned, a cowboy in a flight suit is the one who is likely to fail.

The president has been blunt when that's in the national interest. Like Bush 41, he's pressured Israel to move in a more moderate direction — and today, settling the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is even more urgent than it was then. Obama has paid a political price here, although unlike the first Bush, he will carry Jewish voters in the next election; Rick Perry will drive them to him.

But pressure on Israel wasn't the reason Bush lost in 1992 — or that his record in foreign policy couldn't save him. As James Carville famously put it, it was "the economy, stupid." It still is.

The Bush of 1992 essentially pleaded nolo contendere on the issue, forswearing any new economic initiatives and campaigning with a reassurance, maybe even correct in technical terms, that sounded hollow, seemed unfeeling, and proved entirely unconvincing. His election-year State of the Union message had no message other than a defense of the status quo.

Clearly, the Obama of 2012 is now determined not to repeat that mistake. We're told that he will seize the high ground on the economy with big speeches and big proposals on and after Labor Day. They better be big — given the length of the build-up and the mood of the country.

But this isn't a simple or straightforward exercise. The president doesn't have the power here he wields in foreign affairs — and the tea-drugged Republican House and the filibuster-intoxicated Republicans in the Senate are bent on blocking whatever Obama is for. The difficulty isn't just domestic or partisan; it's ideological and international. Obama has to contend with a march of morons that stretches from Capitol Hill to the summit of international policymaking.

Globalization has vastly complicated the task of achieving and securing recovery in one country, as FDR did between 1933 and 1937, when he spurned the orthodoxy of cutting spending, which brought on a deepening economic decline overseas. In the 21st century, recovery here will be spurred or impeded by choices over there — choices which should be coordinated among nations, but are often driven by parochial politics and reactionary dogma.

There were hopeful signs at the G8 summit in London in the spring of 2009. With the leadership of then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the advocacy of an activist Obama, the new and brightest star on the world stage, the major nations agreed to a strategy for stimulating demand and supporting sustained recovery.

The United States did that — with a stimulus program, insufficient in size, but the most that could get through Congress, which at least forestalled a depression. But by 2010, Republicans, who told and perhaps believed the lie that the program failed at the job of job creation, made it impossible to pass a second round of stimulus. Meanwhile the politics of austerity was undoing the international consensus for pro-growth policies.

After the 2010 election in Britain, Brown was forced from office by a cobbled together and cynical coalition of Conservatives and the misnamed Liberal-Democrats. The country was recovering; the recession was over; the growth rate had risen to 1 percent and was headed higher — when the new regime reverted to the ideology of austerity, slashing spending and the social safety net.

Since then growth has flat lined. According to the OECD, "Britain has underperformed all the world's leading economies over the past year except tsunami-hit Japan." But conservatives there stubbornly cling to their policies, marching downhill in the front ranks of the economic morons. It is the same approach that doomed Britain in the lost decade of the 1930s.

Ascendant conservatives elsewhere in Europe — not to mention Japan's ravaged government — have more or less adopted the same discredited ideology. Euro-Zone growth is at a two-year low and German momentum has slowed to a crawl. No nation, including the U.S., can export its way to prosperity when consumers everywhere are buying less and worrying more.

Compounding the impact of retrenchment is Europe's resolute abnegation of responsibility for the common currency. This has forced troubled countries to cut so far and so fast that the resulting negative growth and uncertainty about the Euro weigh heavier and heavier on the world and the American economies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel disavows any measure like Euro bonds, which could end the crisis, because she refuses to stare down the fierce political opposition at home. In substance, this too is a moronic policy — an attempt to have a common currency but no plan to protect it other than demands for more austerity at the wrong time in the economic cycle. It's a counterproductive policy that chases its own tail, producing less revenue and making it harder to narrow deficits as national economies shrink.

Beyond the issue of the Euro, an idea whose time has self-evidently not come, the sensible answer there and here is near-term investment for jobs and growth, combined with longer and medium-term reduction in deficits and debt. That's what President Obama will soon call for — in the plainest possible terms — if he's serious about reviving the economic impetus and regaining the political high ground. And that's what George W. Bush's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors has prescribed. He adds: "Whether the president will propose [that] is anyone's guess.

I believe that while the details may differ, some such proposal is a certainty. Equally certain is the hostile response of the GOP. And equally moronic is what David Frum has rightly arraigned at as "an imagined inflation problem," which has been exploited by "leading Republican candidates for president… to oppose any further monetary easing."

The president may not get his program through — and that probably puts it mildly. He can't blame things on world conditions; Herbert Hoover tried that. American's expect their presidents to get things on the right track — and don't accept the explanation, however true, that we are not, especially now, the sole masters of our own destiny. But in the plain sight of the American people, the president can become the fighter for jobs and growth — and the GOP, to invert Obama's own phrase, can be blamed for putting politics ahead of country. The Republicans are so overt in their obstruction that Obama won't even have to say this explicitly; they themselves will pin the tail on the elephant.

They may not think they are being moronic. Many, if not most of them, are steeped in anti-stimulus mythology. And in their political calculations, they assume that economic distress is their path to power in 2012.

Americans will understand all this more and more if Obama stands up and stands for them — not just in one of two speeches, not just in the next few weeks, but all through the next year. It's time for this president to move on from the art of the possible to the art of persuasion. He was superb at that in 2008, and he can be again. The leader who so notably succeeded in foreign policy — and legislatively in health and financial reform — now has to recapture the nation's imagination with a bold, far-reaching, and plain-spoken

Maybe the recovery will be more resilient than expected. Or Barack Obama may be saved anyway by the parlous and preposterous roster of Republican candidates ranged against him. They are preeminently a march of morons. But he can't just depend on any of this. He can fight to do what's right for hard-working Americans and out of work Americans. And by his own work and will, the man who succeeded Bush 43 can then multiply the odds that he will not go the way of Bush 41.

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