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Foreign Policy: Obama's Moment

Author: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Counselor and Trustee, Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 3, 2012

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The challenge that is facing President Obama now is how to regain the ground lost in foreign affairs and shaping U.S. national security policy.

In foreign affairs, the central challenge now facing President Barack Obama is how to regain some of the ground lost in recent years in shaping U.S. national security policy. Historically and politically, in America's system of separation of powers, it is the president who has the greatest leeway for decisive action in foreign affairs. He is viewed by the country as responsible for Americans' safety in an increasingly turbulent world. He is seen as the ultimate definer of the goals that the United States should pursue through its diplomacy, economic leverage, and, if need be, military compulsion. And the world at large sees him -- for better or for worse -- as the authentic voice of America.

To be sure, he is not a dictator. Congress has a voice. So does the public. And so do vested interests and foreign-policy lobbies. The congressional role in declaring war is especially important not when the United States is the victim of an attack, but when the United States is planning to wage war abroad. Because America is a democracy, public support for presidential foreign-policy decisions is essential. But no one in the government or outside it can match the president's authoritative voice when he speaks and then decisively acts for America.

This is true even in the face of determined opposition. Even when some lobbies succeed in gaining congressional support for their particular foreign clients in defiance of the president, for instance, many congressional signatories still quietly convey to the White House their readiness to support the president if he stands firm for "the national interest." And a president who is willing to do so publicly, while skillfully cultivating friends and allies on Capitol Hill, can then establish such intimidating credibility that it is politically unwise to confront him. This is exactly what Obama needs to do now.

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