President Obama’s accidental disclosure this week of ambitions to be more flexible toward Russia on missile defense after Nov. 6 is not an isolated example of his second-term frame of mind. He has fine-tuned many foreign policy decisions — on Iran, the Middle East crisis, relations with European allies — to leave hard challenges until after he has fought his last election. But that does not mean that he will overhaul U.S. options after Election Day, even if he is able to.
His globally overheard message to Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin is the latest indication that Obama thinks otherwise. Asked in a private Oval Office meeting two years ago if he would construct a comprehensive foreign policy strategy to replace the containment doctrine of the Cold War, he reportedly said even then: “That is for the second term.”
It is not confidence in Putin that led the president to predict progress on missile defense. It is Obama’s unconcealed confidence in himself.
Already he has deftly threaded his way through a much-needed restructuring of NATO’s missile shield for Europe that makes that defensive system less threatening to Russia. I decode his murmurings in Seoul to indicate that he is ready to satisfy Putin’s demand for a written guarantee that the defense plan is not directed at Russia with an eloquent but non-binding letter. Fine. But Obama does not want to pay the political cost of sending such a letter now.
This same sense of “we’ll work all this out in the second half” ran through Obama’s masterful boxing-in of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their recent Washington discussions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Obama built a compelling argument, in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat is a task for the international community and particularly for the United States — not just for Israel. Obama added that containment was not an acceptable or sufficient U.S. response to Iran getting the bomb. In doing so, he crossed a policy Rubicon, in rhetoric at least.
Unilateral Israeli military strikes against Iran before Election Day would be an act of open defiance against a president who has said he is handling the problem. That, I suspect, is too explosive an option even for Netanyahu (unless, of course, the Iranians gravely misplay their hand).
But Obama’s rhetoric is unlikely to have convinced Israel, Iran or the Gulf Arab states that, once reelected, he will actually cast away his reluctance to have the United States wage war on another Muslim country and bomb Iran.
That would be out of character. If he does change, it will not be because of promises made or events he foresaw. It will be because of surprises.
That, at least, is the lesson that recent presidential history suggests. Lyndon Johnson chose not to seek reelection rather than reverse himself on Vietnam. Richard Nixon accomplished his huge about-face on China in his first term — the time when big changes tend to (and should) come, before lame-duck status adheres. The second terms of Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were engulfed by problems created in their first terms.
The most striking turnaround by a second-term president came as a result of an event that Ronald Reagan did not expect (and that his CIA said could not happen): the arrival of a reliable negotiating partner in the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, which was quickly spotted as such by Secretary of State George Shultz.
I wouldn’t count on fate being that kind to Obama. His second term may not be one new thing after another but the same damn thing over and over again: What to do about Iran?