Foreign-policy setbacks deepen Obama's election wounds

President Obama touched down in a rainy Portuguese capital Friday morning. He's in Lisbon for two days of meetings with NATO allies and the European Union.
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 6:51 AM

Presidents have often turned to foreign policy after domestic setbacks - from Ronald Reagan's Latin American tour and speech calling the Soviet Union the "focus of evil in the modern world" in the months after his party's 1982 congressional losses to Bill Clinton's escape to Indonesia and the Philippines following his own midterm trouncing a dozen years later. Both found redemption at the polls.

President Obama has followed suit. But since his midterm shellacking this month, he 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.

From failing to secure a free-trade agreement in South Korea to struggling to win Senate ratification of an arms-control treaty with Russia, Obama has bumped up against the boundaries of his power at a defining moment of his presidency.

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.

Obama arrived Friday morning in Lisbon for a NATO summit, where he hopes to secure military and financial commitments through 2014 from his allies in the Afghanistan war. But shadowing the meeting is Obama's early pledge to take on the world's most vexing issues and the lack of lasting progress achieving those goals.

"He assumed that because he was liked so clearly and overwhelmingly he could merely assert what he wanted to achieve and people would follow," said Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Clearly enough, the world that he imagined proved to be different than the world as it is."

Presidents often look abroad after elections not only to avoid domestic troubles if they went against them but also because foreign affairs usually came second during months of campaigning.

Compelled in part by the fixed dates of two economic summits, Obama left for an extended trip to Asia just days after voters handed the House back to Republicans and narrowed the Democrats' majority in the Senate.

Although he found some adoring audiences in Asia, especially in his childhood home of Indonesia, Obama also encountered foreign leaders skeptical of his free-trade ambitions, proposals to address China's undervalued currency and U.S. monetary policies designed to promote growth at home.

A number of other issues have collided, as well, in a way that has highlighted how much of his foreign policy agenda remains incomplete.

The Middle East peace process he inaugurated two months ago has stalled. His mercurial ally in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, is calling for scaled-back U.S. military operations there at the height of the 30,000-troop escalation Obama approved a year ago.

His pledge to remedy one polarizing legacy of the Bush administration by closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suffered this week when a jury convicted the first former detainee to face civilian trial on only one of 285 criminal counts.

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