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Stratfor: On Obama and the Nature of Failed Presidencies

By George Friedman 
Stratfor Global Intelligence

 

We do not normally comment on domestic political affairs unless they affect international affairs. However, it is necessary to consider American political affairs because they are likely to have a particular effect on international relations. We have now entered the final phase of Barack Obama’s presidency, and like those of several other presidents since World War II, it is ending in what we call a state of failure. This is not a judgment on his presidency so much as on the political configuration within it and surrounding it.

The midterm elections are over, and Congress and the president are in gridlock. This in itself is not significant; presidents as popular as Dwight Eisenhower found themselves in this condition. The problem occurs when there is not only an institutional split but also a shift in underlying public opinion against the president. There are many more sophisticated analyses of public opinion on politics, but I have found it useful to use this predictive model.

Analyzing a President’s Strength

I assume that underneath all of the churning, about 40 percent of the electorate is committed to each party. Twenty percent is uncommitted, with half of those being indifferent to the outcome of politics and the other half being genuinely interested and undecided. In most normal conditions, the real battle between the parties — and by presidents — is to hold their own bases and take as much of the center as possible.

So long as a president is fighting for the center, his ability to govern remains intact. Thus, it is normal for a president to have a popularity rating that is less than 60 percent but more than 40 percent. When a president’s popularity rating falls substantially below 40 percent and remains there for an extended period of time, the dynamics of politics shift. The president is no longer battling for the center but is fighting to hold on to his own supporters — and he is failing to do so.

When the president’s support has fragmented to the point that he is fighting to recover his base, I considered that a failed presidency — particularly when Congress is in the hands of the opposition. His energy cannot be directed toward new initiatives. It is directed toward recovering his base. And presidents who have fallen into this condition near the end of their presidencies have not been likely to recover and regain the center.

Historically, when the president’s popularity rating has dipped to about 37 percent, his position has been unrecoverable. This is what happened to George W. Bush in 2006. It happened to Richard Nixon in 1974 when the Watergate crisis resulted in his resignation, and to Lyndon Johnson in 1967 during the Vietnam War. It also happened to Harry Truman in 1951, primarily because of the Korean War, and to Herbert Hoover before World War II because of the Great Depression.

However, this is not the final historical note on a presidency. Truman, enormously unpopular and unable to run for another term, is now widely regarded as one of the finest presidents the United States has had. Nixon, on the other hand, has never recovered. This is not therefore a judgment on Obama’s place in history, but simply on his current political condition. Nor does it take failure to lose the presidency; Jimmy Carter was defeated even though his popularity remained well in the 40s.

Obama’s Presidency

Of the five failed presidencies I’ve cited, one failed over scandal, one over the economy and three over wars — Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Obama’s case is less clear than any. The 40 percent who gravitated to the opposition opposed him for a host of reasons. He lost the center for complex reasons as well. However, looking at the timing of his decline, the only intruding event that might have had that impact was the rise of the Islamic State and a sense, even in his own party, that he did not have an effective response to it. Historically, extended wars that the president did not appear to have a strategy for fighting have been devastating to the presidency. Woodrow Wilson’s war (World War I) was short and successful. Franklin Roosevelt’s war (World War II) was longer, and although it began in failure it became clear that a successful end was conceivable. The Korean, Vietnam and two Iraq wars suffered not from the length, but from the sense that the presidency did not have a war-ending strategy. Obama appears to me to have fallen into the political abyss because after eight years he owned the war and appeared to have no grip on it.

Failure extends to domestic policy as well. The Republican-controlled legislature can pass whatever legislation it likes, but the president retains veto power, and two-thirds of both houses must vote to override. The problem is that given the president’s lack of popularity — and the fact that the presidency, all of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will be up for re-election in two years — the president’s allies in Congress are not as willing to be held responsible for upholding his vetoes. Just as few Democrats wanted Obama campaigning for them, so too do few want to join the president in vetoing majority legislation. What broke Truman, Johnson and Nixon was the moment it became clear that their party’s leaders in Congress wanted them gone.

Acting Within Constraints

This does not mean that the president can’t act. It simply means that it is enormously more difficult to act than before. Gerald Ford, replacing Nixon but weakened by the pardoning of his predecessor, could not stop Congress from cutting off aid to South Vietnam during the final Communist assault. George W. Bush was able to launch the surge, but the surge was limited in size, not only because of strategic conditions but also because he had lost the ability to force Congress to fund alternative expansions of the war. In each of the failed presidencies, the president retained the ability to act but was constrained by the twin threats of an opposition-controlled Congress and his own party’s unwillingness to align with him.

At the same time, certain foreign diplomatic initiatives can continue. Nixon initiated negotiations between Egypt and Israel that culminated, under Carter’s administration, in the Camp David Accords. Truman tried to open negotiations with China, and the initiative’s failure had little to do with opposition to a negotiated settlement in Korea.

The president has few domestic options. Whatever Obama does with his power domestically, Congress can vote to cut funding, and if the act is vetoed, the president puts Congressional Democrats in mortal danger. The place where he can act — and this is likely the place Obama is least comfortable acting — is in foreign policy. There, the limited deployment of troops and diplomatic initiatives are possible.

Obama’s general strategy is to withdraw from existing conflicts in the Middle East and contain and limit Russian actions in Ukraine. The president has the ability to bring military and other pressure to bear. But the United States’ opponent is aware that the sitting president is no longer in control of Washington, that he has a specific date of termination and that the more unpopular things he does, the more likely his successor is to repudiate them. Therefore, in the China-North Korea model, the assumption is that that continuing the conflict and negotiating with the successor president is rational. In the same sense, Iran chose to wait for the election of Ronald Reagan rather than deal with Jimmy Carter (who was not a failed president).

This model depends on the opponent’s having the resources and the political will to continue the conflict in order to bargain with the president’s successor, and assumes that the successor will be more malleable. This is frequently the result, since the successor can make concessions more readily than his predecessor. In fact, he can make those concessions and gain points by blaming the need to concede on his predecessor. Ironically, Obama used this strategy after replacing George W. Bush. The failed president frequently tries to entice negotiation by increasing the military pressure on the enemy. Truman, Johnson and George W. Bush all took this path while seeking to end their wars. In no case did it work, but they had little to lose politically by trying.

Therefore, if we follow historical patterns, Obama will now proceed slowly and ineffectively to increase military operations in Syria and Iraq, while raising non-military pressure on Russia, or potentially initiating some low-level military activities in Ukraine. The actions will be designed to achieve a rapid negotiating process that will not happen. The presidency will shift to the other party, as it did with Truman, Johnson and George W. Bush. Thus, if patterns hold true, the Republicans will retake the presidency. This is not a pattern unknown to Congress, which means that the Democrats in the legislature will focus on running their own campaigns as far away from Obama and the next Democratic presidential candidate as possible.

The period of a failed presidency is therefore not a quiet time. The president is actively trying to save his legacy in the face of enormous domestic weakness. Other countries, particularly adversaries, see little reason to make concessions to failed presidents, preferring to deal with the next president instead. These adversaries then use military and political oppositions abroad to help shape the next U.S. presidential campaign in directions that are in their interests.

It is against this backdrop that all domestic activities take place. The president retains the veto, and if the president is careful he will be able to sustain it. Obama will engage in limited domestic politics, under heavy pressure from Congressional Democrats, confining himself to one or two things. His major activity will be coping with Syria, Iraq and Russia, both because of crises and the desire for a legacy. The last two years of a failed presidency are mostly about foreign policy and are not very pleasant to watch.

 
On Obama and the Nature of Failed Presidencies is republished with permission of Stratfor.
 
 
 
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Stratfor: The Emerging Doctrine of the United States

By George Friedman

Over the past weekend, rumors began to emerge that the Syrian opposition would allow elements of the al Assad regime to remain in Syria and participate in the new government. Rumors have become Syria’s prime export, and as such they should not be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, what is happening in Syria is significant for a new foreign doctrine emerging in the United States — a doctrine in which the United States does not take primary responsibility for events, but which allows regional crises to play out until a new regional balance is reached. Whether a good or bad policy — and that is partly what the U.S. presidential race is about — it is real, and it flows from lessons learned.

Threats against the United States are many and complex, but Washington’s main priority is ensuring that none of those threats challenge its fundamental interests. Somewhat simplistically, this boils down to mitigating threats against U.S. control of the seas by preventing the emergence of a Eurasian power able to marshal resources toward that end. It also includes preventing the development of a substantial intercontinental nuclear capability that could threaten the United States if a country is undeterred by U.S. military power for whatever reason. There are obviously other interests, but certainly these interests are fundamental.

Therefore, U.S. interest in what is happening in the Western Pacific is understandable. But even there, the United States is, at least for now, allowing regional forces to engage each other in a struggle that has not yet affected the area’s balance of power. U.S. allies and proxies, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, have been playing chess in the region’s seas without a direct imposition of U.S. naval power — even though such a prospect appears possible.

Lessons Learned

The roots of this policy lie in Iraq. Iran and Iraq are historical rivals; they fought an extended war in the 1980s with massive casualties. A balance of power existed between the two that neither was comfortable with but that neither could overcome. They contained each other with minimal external involvement.

The U.S. intervention in Iraq had many causes but one overwhelming consequence: In destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime, a regime that was at least as monstrous as Moammar Gadhafi’s or Bashar al Assad’s, the United States destroyed the regional balance of power with Iran. The United States also miscalculated the consequences of the invasion and faced substantial resistance. When the United States calculated that withdrawal was the most prudent course — a decision made during the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration — Iran consequently gained power and a greater sense of security. Perhaps such outcomes should have been expected, but since a forced withdrawal was unexpected, the consequences didn’t clearly follow and warnings went unheeded.

If Iraq was the major and critical lesson on the consequences of intervention, Libya was the smaller and less significant lesson that drove it home. The United States did not want to get involved in Libya. Following the logic of the new policy, Libya did not represent a threat to U.S. interests. It was the Europeans, particularly the French, who argued that the human rights threats posed by the Gadhafi regime had to be countered and that those threats could quickly and efficiently be countered from the air. Initially, the U.S. position was that France and its allies were free to involve themselves, but the United States did not wish to intervene.

This rapidly shifted as the Europeans mounted an air campaign. They found that the Gadhafi regime did not collapse merely because French aircraft entered Libyan airspace. They also found that the campaign was going to be longer and more difficult than they anticipated. At this point committed to maintaining its coalition with the Europeans, the United States found itself in the position of either breaking with its coalition or participating in the air campaign. It chose the latter, seeing the commitment as minimal and supporting the alliance as a prior consideration.

Libya and Iraq taught us two lessons. The first was that campaigns designed to topple brutal dictators do not necessarily yield better regimes. Instead of the brutality of tyrants, the brutality of chaos and smaller tyrants emerged. The second lesson, well learned in Iraq, is that the world does not necessarily admire interventions for the sake of human rights. The United States also learned that the world’s position can shift with startling rapidity from demanding U.S. action to condemning U.S. action. Moreover, Washington discovered that intervention can unleash virulently anti-American forces that will kill U.S. diplomats. Once the United States enters the campaign, however reluctantly and in however marginal a role, it will be the United States that will be held accountable by much of the world — certainly by the inhabitants of the country experiencing the intervention. As in Iraq, on a vastly smaller scale, intervention carries with it unexpected consequences.

These lessons have informed U.S. policy toward Syria, which affects only some U.S. interests. However, any U.S. intervention in Syria would constitute both an effort and a risk disproportionate to those interests. Particularly after Libya, the French and other Europeans realized that their own ability to intervene in Syria was insufficient without the Americans, so they declined to intervene. Of course, this predated the killing of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, but it did not predate the fact that the intervention in Libya surprised planners by its length and by the difficulty of creating a successor regime less brutal than the one it replaced. The United States was not prepared to intervene with conventional military force.

That is not to say the United States did not have an interest in Syria. Specifically, Washington did not want Syria to become an Iranian puppet that would allow Tehran’s influence to stretch through Iraq to the Mediterranean. The United States had been content with the Syrian regime while it was simply a partner of Iran rather than Iran’s subordinate. However, the United States foresaw Syria as a subordinate of Iran if the al Assad regime survived. The United States wanted Iran blocked, and that meant the displacement of the al Assad regime. It did not mean Washington wanted to intervene militarily, except possibly through aid and training potentially delivered by U.S. special operations forces — a lighter intervention than others advocated.

Essential Interests

The U.S. solution is instructive of the emerging doctrine. First, the United States accepted that al Assad, like Saddam Hussein and Gadhafi, was a tyrant. But it did not accept the idea that al Assad’s fall would create a morally superior regime. In any event, it expected the internal forces in Syria to deal with al Assad and was prepared to allow this to play out. Second, the United States expected regional powers to address the Syrian question if they wished. This meant primarily Turkey and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia. From the American point of view, the Turks and Saudis had an even greater interest in circumscribing an Iranian sphere of influence, and they had far greater levers to determine the outcome in Syria. Israel is, of course, a regional power, but it was in no position to intervene: The Israelis lacked the power to impose a solution, they could not occupy Syria, and Israeli support for any Syrian faction would delegitimize that faction immediately. Any intervention would have to be regional and driven by each participant’s national interests.

The Turks realized that their own national interest, while certainly affected by Syria, did not require a major military intervention, which would have been difficult to execute and which would have had an unknown outcome. The Saudis and Qataris, never prepared to intervene directly, did what they could covertly, using money, arms and religiously motivated fighters to influence events. But no country was prepared to risk too much to shape events in Syria. They were prepared to use indirect power rather than conventional military force. As a result, the conflict remains unresolved.

This has forced both the Syrian regime and the rebels to recognize the unlikelihood of outright military victory. Iran’s support for the regime and the various sources of support for the Syrian opposition have proved indecisive. Rumors of political compromise are emerging accordingly.

We see this doctrine at work in Iran as well. Tehran is developing nuclear weapons, which may threaten Israel. At the same time, the United States is not prepared to engage in a war with Iran, nor is it prepared to underwrite the Israeli attack with added military support. It is using an inefficient means of pressure — sanctions — which appears to have had some effect with the rapid depreciation of the Iranian currency. But the United States is not looking to resolve the Iranian issue, nor is it prepared to take primary responsibility for it unless Iran becomes a threat to fundamental U.S. interests. It is content to let events unfold and act only when there is no other choice.

Under the emerging doctrine, the absence of an overwhelming American interest means that the fate of a country like Syria is in the hands of the Syrian people or neighboring countries. The United States is unwilling to take on the cost and calumny of trying to solve the problem. It is less a form of isolationism than a recognition of the limits of power and interest. Not everything that happens in the world requires or justifies American intervention.

If maintained, this doctrine will force the world to reconsider many things. On a recent trip in Europe and the Caucasus, I was constantly asked what the United States would do on various issues. I responded by saying it would do remarkably little and that it was up to them to act. This caused interesting consternation. Many who condemn U.S. hegemony also seem to demand it. There is a shift under way that they have not yet noticed — except for an absence that they regard as an American failure. My attempt to explain it as the new normal did not always work.

Given that there is a U.S. presidential election under way, this doctrine, which has quietly emerged under Obama, appears to conflict with the views of Mitt Romney, a point I made in a previous article. My core argument on foreign policy is that reality, not presidents or policy papers, makes foreign policy. The United States has entered a period in which it must move from military domination to more subtle manipulation, and more important, allow events to take their course. This is a maturation of U.S. foreign policy, not a degradation. Most important, it is happening out of impersonal forces that will shape whoever wins the U.S. presidential election and whatever he might want. Whether he wishes to increase U.S. assertiveness out of national interest, or to protect human rights, the United States is changing the model by which it operates. Overextended, it is redesigning its operating system to focus on the essentials and accept that much of the world, unessential to the United States, will be free to evolve as it will.

This does not mean that the United States will disengage from world affairs. It controls the world’s oceans and generates almost a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product. While disengagement is impossible, controlled engagement, based on a realistic understanding of the national interest, is possible.

This will upset the international system, especially U.S. allies. It will also create stress in the United States both from the political left, which wants a humanitarian foreign policy, and the political right, which defines the national interest broadly. But the constraints of the past decade weigh heavily on the United States and therefore will change the way the world works.

The important point is that no one decided this new doctrine. It is emerging from the reality the United States faces. That is how powerful doctrines emerge. They manifest themselves first and are announced when everyone realizes that that is how things work.
 
The Emerging Doctrine of the United States is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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