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Obama’s Second-Term Obstacle: His First

By all accounts, given President Obama’s focus on domestic policy initiatives in his first term, he will play the “flexibility” card he promised the Putin/Medvedev tandem and seek to cement a foreign policy legacy in his second term. But there are serious challenges to this, flexibility or no flexibility.

The immediate challenge that comes to mind is that, as has been exhaustively chronicled by a usually adoring media, Obama is not only terrible at diplomacy, but it’s the part of his job description he most loathes. He doesn’t like building relationships at home or abroad, which may very well put statesmanship far beyond his reach. But there is a more fundamental problem, and it’s not one limited to Barack Obama: For all the talk of a second-term “clean slate,” which exempts the president from electoral considerations, a president cannot undo his first term. There is no true clean slate abroad on any issue, or with any country, that was part of the first term agenda.

Take Russia, for example. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports on the Putin administration’s continued suspicion toward Obama and opposition to missile defense in Europe. Obama’s big gamble at the beginning of his time in office was to discard the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Not only can he no longer offer that to the Russians, the lesson Putin learned was that the defense of Europe was negotiable. It took no effort for Putin to chase missile defense out of Eastern Europe, so he figured he’d next chase them out of the rest of the continent.

Sanctions to which Putin was willing to agree on Iran haven’t stopped its nuclear program, and Putin’s desperate desire to keep NATO in Afghanistan–which keeps the Americans bogged down defending Russia’s near-abroad for them while working to stem the drug trade–now seems hopeless. Without a serious Western presence in Afghanistan, Putin is now threatening to end all cooperation with NATO’s mission there, meager as it was to begin with. Next, Putin expelled USAID and moved to end the historic Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction regime. RFE/RL offers a revealing quote:

“The low-hanging fruit has already been picked, so [cooperation] will be less substantial than before,” Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Petersen Institute of International Economics in Washington, says. “And the Russian suspicions about missile defense — rather Putin’s suspicions about missile defense — will be quite strong.”

Indeed, Russia’s accession to the WTO–a genuine accomplishment for the Obama administration, which should be especially beneficial to the U.S. during a down economy–has already been secured. The point is, Obama cannot simply “reset” relations with the world. This is especially true in places where the administration has already tried such a reset, like Russia.

But it’s also true in other places. Take the Middle East, where former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is hoping a second-term peace process escapade is in the offing. But Obama can’t undo the damage he’s done by picking fights with Israel over Jerusalem or by pushing the Palestinians as far away from the negotiating table as they’ve ever been by telling them to demand a bouquet of silly preconditions that no Israeli governing coalition–as Evelyn pointed out this morning–would agree to. Obama’s astounding failure in the Middle East can’t be erased, so on this issue the president is his own worst enemy. Reuters unwittingly gives the game away on the prospects for peace in the Middle East:

Blair represents the so-called “quartet” of Middle East peacemakers — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — and has visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories some 90 times since taking the job in 2007.

He’s the West’s primary diplomatic representative in the region, and he’s been there ninety times in the last five years. And the two sides are farther apart than they’ve been in two decades–thanks, by the way, to Western policymaking in the time Blair has been at his post. I’m not blaming Blair; I’m simply making the point that he’s been spending a tremendous amount of time there and produced absolutely nothing to show for it.

Iran is another example. Thanks to the failure of diplomacy, Obama actually has the political capital to order military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Polls show such a move would have the support of the American people, and Obama would have all the credibility in the world if he declared that diplomacy had finally failed precisely because he has been the poster president for engagement at all costs. But he can’t go back to 2008, when he let himself be strung along, or 2009, when he ignored a brewing democratic protest movement there. And trying to do so would make him look foolish.

So while I can understand Obama’s desire to set a new legacy abroad–after all, his current foreign policy legacy is the Benghazi debacle–he has plenty of room for improvement and almost no room to maneuver. And he only has himself to blame.

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