As foreign policy events appear to be cascading in front of the Obama administration, it may be time to consider what actually can be accomplished in the months before the high stakes, political silly season begins in earnest.
In terms of process, President Obama should recall that Lyndon Johnson, among other presidents, learned the hard way that to succeed in enacting even major domestic legislation, as Johnson did with Medicare and the Great Society and Obama achieved now with health care, requires a totally different set of skills than engaging international issues.
In the wake of the president’s hard-fought success in the healthcare debate, it will be a political challenge for the Obama administration to sustain its momentum in their fight for job creation, banking reform, education reform, and cap and trade legislation. Even in the most cooperative of political environments — which the current one certainly is not — it would be a herculean task to maneuver these bills along with all the required appropriations bills before members of Congress go out on the hustings full time in October.
All of these issues are rolling forward even as we brace for a major debate as the August deadline for Iraq withdrawal approaches. Finally, the president and the Senate may well face a Supreme Court nomination showdown, should Justice John Paul Stevens retire before the end of the Court’s term in June.
And if this agenda isn’t full enough, consider the recent meeting between Obama and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Charles Schumer (D-NY), to address bipartisan immigration reform legislation. While these senators have been championing such a bill, it is not on top of the president’s laundry list. Hosting the meeting may have been a question of politics, not priorities. Although most Washington observers know that immigration changes will not be addressed in earnest until after the 2010 midterm elections, the White House had to signal to Latino voters that the president is committed to the issue as ever.
That having been said, the international challenges facing the administration appear to be escalating daily and dramatically. Presidents never seem to realize how consuming foreign policy can be. Not only has Obama made a clear decision to take a much more engaged approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he is moving ahead on an arms reduction treaty with Russia, which could entail a protracted ratification battle in the Senate.
In addition, the United Nations is about to debate sanctions against Iran. The Iranian government seems intent on embarrassing America and the West by flaunting its nuclear development program and almost trying to seduce the American (and the Israelis) into attacking their nuclear installations. The United States appears to have broken through to some extent with the Chinese, and forthcoming bilateral meetings in the United States could prove extremely significant. Meanwhile, South Korea just had a patrol ship mysteriously explode in the Yellow Sea, and radical suicide bombers just blew themselves up on a Moscow subway.
Nor can we forget about the frustrating inability of the United States to get the Afghanistan government out of its deep-seated corruption so that genuine progress can be made by the U.S. and its allies in the fight against the Taliban. While it was undoubtedly uplifting for American troops in Afghanistan to receive a fly-in visit from the commander-in-chief, how pathetic it is that the president needed to fly almost 32 hours to have a face-to-face meeting with America’s corrupt yet presumed ally, President Karzai, begging him to clean up his store.
In this context, the current Palestinian-Israeli stand-off is only one item on a very crowded foreign policy plate. There was a time where Jewish readers of The New York Times would turn every morning to see the latest news from Israel, but today even a “crisis” in U.S.-Israel relations is likely to get bumped off the front page by other events.