President Barack Obama envisioned building a foreign-policy legacy in his second term: a nuclear deal with sanction-strapped Iran, an end to U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas, and a successful pivot to Asia, including a trans-Pacific trade pact.
Fifteen months after his second inaugural, those goals look more problematic, and Syria's Bashar Assad and Russia's Vladimir Putin have created new crises. Dashed foreign-policy dreams aren't unique to this second-term president: Dwight D. Eisenhower had to contend with the downing of a spy plane by the Soviet Union, the Iran-contra scandal bedeviled Ronald Reagan, and the Iraq War turned into a nightmare in George W. Bush's second term.
Obama's woes are complicated by a sense — denied by the White House — of American disengagement. "The perception of American withdrawal is palpable," says Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser to George W. Bush.
"The Europeans and the Gulf states think that we're leaving," says Bill Cohen, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton. "The Asian countries think we're not coming."
Moreover, the president is caught in a contradictory, and unfair, squeeze. On issues such as Syria and Russia, he's depicted as insufficiently aggressive or tough. At the same time, the American public, turned off by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, wants no part of more aggressive foreign entanglements. Even some Republicans are taking cues from Senator Rand Paul's quasi-isolationists stance.
Some of the specifics seem bleak and intractable. The Syrian civil war is deteriorating, affecting the entire region, and the dictator, Assad, is getting stronger, even as the administration says he must leave power. Despite the valiant efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is barely on life support.
U.S. officials acknowledge they lack a good read on Putin's intentions. There is a good case to be made that Obama's policies toward Russia are smart in the long run. Yet like every president since Harry Truman, there's little Obama can do to stop Russian aggressiveness in the short term.
Even the two big areas where major successes are possible this year, an Iranian nuclear deal and sweeping trade agreements, are fraught with political complications.
Both sides want a nuclear agreement, Obama for security and legacy reasons, the Iranians for economic and political ones. Important details remain, informed sources say, but the negotiators have made progress, and there's even some hope of an accord before an interim agreement expires July 20.
If that happens, there will be two critical questions: Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't be pleased, and his government will express strong reservations, will the Israelis go all out to persuade Congress to sabotage the deal? Then, will two top Democrats — Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez and New York Senator Charles Schumer — join Republicans in trying to thwart a deal?
At that point, would Obama be willing to expend enormous political capital by telling the country, as well Congress, that failure to accept the deal means a nuclear-armed Iran or war?
The other conceivable victory would be obtaining so-called fast-track negotiating authority for trade agreements, followed by the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be the biggest trade deal in U.S. history.
Obama's problem is his own party. A majority of House Democrats oppose the pacts under consideration, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has signaled little interest in bringing any agreements to a vote this year. The White House, already worried about the prospect of Republican control of the Senate in Obama's final two years, has difficult calculations to weigh.
The president returns Tuesday from a trip to Asia, where his pivot policy had alienated China without assuaging U.S. allies. When he lands at Andrews Air Force Base, he may feel that even the recalcitrant and partisan Congress isn't any messier than this uninviting global landscape.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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