There are two great sources of frustrating irony for presidents seeking to leave their own policymaking legacy. The first is that they have far greater control over American foreign policy than domestic economic policy, yet it is the latter they are judged on when they stand for reelection after their first term. The second is that, once forced by the electorate to turn their attention to economic policy, history reverses its influence on them by often judging them predominantly on foreign policy.
That makes sense; the president is the commander in chief of the combined armed forces of the world’s lone superpower, and his first responsibility is always to keep his citizens safe. Following this trend, President Obama came under attack for his own economic stewardship, but won a second term. Now, as he turns to foreign policy with more concentration and attention than his first term, he is finding, as most presidents do, that no matter which direction he turns he will somehow still be facing the Middle East. The president is already hounded by Benghazi; he’s gone to Asia to stress the Asian “pivot”—not so much a policy as a slogan meant to convey a thoughtfulness about the 21st century world—and the Middle East followed him there. It was not Benghazi, however. Rather, it was Hamas that showed up in Thailand, and the president was decidedly unamused:
“Let’s understand what the precipitating event here that’s causing the current crisis and that was an ever-escalating number of missiles that were landing not just in Israeli territory but in areas that are populated, and there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” Obama said at press conference in Thailand at the start of a three-nation tour in Asia.
“So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians.”
As usual, the United States stands with Israel in yet another no-brainer: a terrorist group has conducted a prolonged assault upon Israel’s south, Tel Aviv, and even Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most militarily cautious and patient prime ministers in Israel’s history, has shown remarkable restraint by not ordering a ground invasion even though Jerusalem—infinitely holy to the Jewish people but apparently not very holy to the Palestinians who keep trying to blow it up—has come under fire.
But this is an easy call for the president for another reason: Hamas has decided it will be the first to test the newly reelected president’s resolve. Obama wants peace and Hamas wants war. Peace will be possible with Hamas’s defeat.
But even more than that, the president’s foreign policy legacy very well might depend on the resolution of the security crises in the Middle East–including the one created by Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons–and if the president wants attention for his Asia “pivot” or any other aspect of his foreign policy, he needs a lot more quiet on the Middle Eastern front. Hamas’s ability to sabotage the political process has gone global. The president, therefore, may actually want to make more of an example of Hamas than even Israel does. Hamas’s latest provocations were intended as a message to Israel but also to the American president. Judging by his comments, Obama seems to have gotten the message.