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Limited Freedom of Action

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow
October 17, 2013
La Croix


Originally published in French in La Croix:

Despite the fact that Barack Obama has been the U.S. president for almost six years, he remains an elusive figure, hard to pin down ideologically on both domestic and foreign policy.

At home, he has cast himself as the defender of ordinary working Americans, and has delivered important advances, such as health care for the uninsured and economic priorities aimed at reducing inequality and improving life for the middle class. But Obama has also treated Wall Street with kid gloves and done little to fix the underlying financial problems that caused the Great Recession.

On foreign policy, Obama has pivoted to Asia to respond to a more assertive China and intervened in Libya to avert the bloody repression of an uprising against the Qaddafi regime. But he then steered clear of involvement in Syria's civil war, got cold feet after preparing to strike the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, and is now heading down a diplomatic road with Iran.

Obama remains an enigma for several reasons. He is a pragmatist and centrist, preferring a politics of deliberation and compromise aimed at solving problems, not realizing grand ideological objectives. This pragmatism is more often than not an asset. But it can at times come off as a lack of conviction, especially at a time when America's political center is fatally weak, meaning that Obama regularly faces sharp criticism from the left and, especially, the hard right.

Obama's restrained ambition also stems from the reality that he is the most constrained U.S. president of modern times. At home, he is hemmed in by a severe economic downturn, the budget sequester, and debilitating polarization. The Republican-controlled House has tried to foil Obama at every turn, with renegade Tea Party members going so far as to shut down the U.S. government in a futile effort to block his signature accomplishment: healthcare reform.

The constraints abroad are equally daunting. Europe, America's main partner in the world, has been beset by an economic and political crisis that has sapped its ability and will to look beyond its own neighborhood. Putin's Russia has consistently sought to trip up Washington. China is flexing its muscles and on course to become the world's leading economy in the next decade. And the Middle East is being wracked by social and political upheaval that leaves the United States and other outside powers with little choice but to be passive spectators.

Constraints at home and profound change abroad mean that the U.S. president, whoever holds the office, simply has less ability to shape events than at any time since World War II.

As for Obama's legacy and his agenda for his remaining time in office, the broad objectives are relatively clear – and none of them will be easy to attain. He aims to reduce commitments abroad in favor of domestic priorities, hoping to full his campaign pledge that "It is time for nation-building here at home." Americans are tired of distant wars and want investment in schools and bridges in Kansas, not in Kandahar.

Nonetheless, U.S. leadership is still needed in many parts of the world, meaning that Obama will need to fashion a scaled-back brand of foreign policy that enjoys domestic support while still fulfilling geopolitical obligations. Expanding international commerce, because it would boost growth at home, is one attractive way of bringing foreign and domestic policies into alignment, one of the reasons Obama hopes to conclude Atlantic and Pacific trade pacts by the time he leaves office.

Consolidating the pivot to Asia is a second key objective, not just to hedge against China, but also to tap into the region's economic dynamism. Obama hopes to reduce America's exposure in the Middle East to enable this rebalancing to Asia, but the Middle East shows few signs of letting go. And troubles in Washington are not helping matters; Obama just had to cancel a major trip to Asia to handle the shutdown of the federal government.

Finally, Obama's top priority in the Middle East will be a verifiable end to Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. He would strongly prefer to attain that goal peacefully. But Obama's repeated assertions that a nuclear Iran is not acceptable suggest he may be ready to use military force if a deal is not soon forthcoming. A breakthrough with Tehran would not just avert war, but also help address the burning conflict in Syria; if Iran can be convinced to back away from its support for Assad, a negotiated peace may be in the offing. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is also on Obama's agenda, but it will take a back seat to Iran.

The diplomatic opening afforded by Hassan Rouhani, an Iranian president who seems bent on pursuing a more moderate course, has raised hopes of a deal on the nuclear front. If so, that deal would be one of Obama's most significant legacies. If there is no breakthrough, it will be part of Obama's enigmatic nature that a president who won the Nobel Peace Prize soon after entering office may well finish his presidency by going to war with Iran.

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