Obama Faces Make-or-Break Moment on Foreign Policy

Domestic opposition finds new issues to obstruct

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One of the most persistent nuggets of beltway conventional wisdom this year has been that President Barack Obama would respond to Republican congressional gains by turning his attention from domestic issues, such as health care, toward foreign policy challenges. But the incoming Republicans have not yet even taken their seats and already Obama is facing possibly insurmountable GOP obstruction on an issue that was supposed to enjoy wide bipartisan support: the New START nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia. Political reporters and commentators are framing this as a make-or-break moment for Obama, who will set much of the tone for the 112th Congress on how he handles the congressional impasse over New START.

  • 'Test of His Mettle'  The New York Times' Peter Baker writes, "President Obama has decided to confront Senate Republicans in a make-or-break battle over arms control that could be an early test of his mettle heading into the final two years of his term. He is pushing for a vote on a signature issue despite long odds, daring Republicans to block an arms-control treaty at the risk of disrupting relations with Russia and the international coalition that opposes Iran’s nuclear program. If he succeeds, Mr. Obama will demonstrate strength following the midterm election debacle. If he fails, he will reinforce the perception at home and abroad that he is a weakened president."
  • Failure Could Make Him One-Term President  The Washington Post's Scott Wilson predicts doom. "Since his midterm shellacking this month, [Obama] has suffered a series of foreign policy setbacks, in Congress and abroad, that have put his agenda for improving America's standing and strength overseas at risk. ... He is halfway through his term and politically weaker after midterm voters punished his party. But ahead are a host of unresolved foreign policy issues, from drawing down troops in Afghanistan to advancing Middle East peace prospects and economic relations with China, that will require a firm base of domestic support and could help determine whether he is reelected."
  • The Struggle to Engage World's Muslims  USA Today's Thomas Kidd writes, "In matters large and small, Obama has to strike a delicate balance regarding Islam. It is not that he has taken an unprecedented interest in Islam: President Thomas Jefferson had his copy of the Quran, and President George W. Bush discussed Islam just as much as Obama. But because of the ongoing war against jihadist terror, the controversy about the Ground Zero mosque, and especially because of persistent (if absurd) rumors about the president's own faith, Obama has a special burden to carry about Islam. He must communicate that America's millions of Muslims are fully welcome here, and that America is not at war with the Muslim community at large. Yet he must also maintain moral clarity about the menace of jihadist terrorism."
  • How Domestic Infighting Hurts Foreign Policy  Former senior State Department official Richard Haass notes that "substantial change to US policy requires Congress to act," but that's looking less likely. Obama needs Congress to cooperate on a wide variety of crucial issues: Russia, China, Israel-Palestine, Iran, even Cuba will be increasingly tricky to act on. But the worst deadlocks could be economic. "Mounting debt also leaves the US vulnerable to the decisions of those who lend it money – or to the vagaries of the market. A dollar crisis could weaken the foundations of American power. But averting such a crisis requires that the White House and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, agree on a plan for moving the US budget toward balance. Alas, the election makes such agreement more distant than ever."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.