It’s a long-held piece of Washington conventional wisdom—and, unlike most long-held pieces of Washington conventional wisdom, this one actually happens to be true!—that Democratic presidents tend to be more interested in domestic policy, while Republicans like making foreign policy.
There are several reasons for this. The main one: Democrats have usually had far more ambitious domestic agendas. Meanwhile, foreign policy has taken up more oxygen in Republican politics ever since the dawn of the Cold War, when a tough line became one of the two or three central elements of the GOP Weltanschauung. Besides, a Democratic Congress has been the norm for most of that time, so Republican presidents got that foreign policy was the realm in which they had to worry far less about that meddlesome Congress. With certain asterisks here and there—the ill-traveled and internationally incurious George W. Bush was the main exception until a certain September morning—this division of labor has held true.
Now comes Barack Obama. It’s not that he isn’t engrossed in domestic policy, obviously. He’s announcing some new initiative every week. This week is supposed to be “energy week,” as the president puts more political capital behind cap-and-trade legislation. But we knew he’d do all that. It’s what Democratic presidents do, especially when they take office in the throes of economic crisis.
The biggest surprise of the early Obama era, though, has been the way he’s thrown himself into foreign policy. Here again one could well argue that he didn’t have much choice, given the number of messes he inherited and the new ones the world seems to have a habit of making, notably the simultaneously frightening and inspiring one in Iran, which Obama correctly calculated was not the right occasion for oratorical showboating. But he’s doing, or trying to do, more than clean up messes. His project is a new grand strategy that (in theory at least) reestablishes American moral authority in the world, uses it to build coalitions to settle disputes, and as a by-product makes the Democratic Party look a lot more like Harry Truman and a lot less like George McGovern.
Want proof of his seriousness of intent? Then look at the issue he’s most vigorously thrown himself into—only the world’s toughest: Israel and Palestine (this week is also Middle East week, as Special Envoy George Mitchell sits down with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in Paris to schedule a resumption of direct peace talks). Last week I spoke with about a dozen close observers (Jewish, Arab, and other) of the situation, and virtually all of them expressed surprise that Obama has moved so quickly, aggressively, and personally on the issue.
It’s a marked contrast to Bush, who let the Middle East grow mold for seven years and then pressed Condi to hurry up and do something at a time by which players in the region knew she carried no weight anyway. And, of course, it’s a marked contrast to the usual modus operandi of presidents of both parties because Obama opened the chess match with a high-risk, public dressing-down of Israel on settlements. “We were very surprised at how strongly Obama came out in that first meeting with Bibi,” says Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine.
Naturally, this has produced some alarm. But my impression from my interviews is that it’s often overstated. For every Malcolm Hoenlein, who kicked up dust within the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week with some anti-Obama comments, there’s at least one counterpart willing to give the president a shot. Even mighty aipac is holding its fire. “I think most people are saying, ‘It’s good he’s starting this,’ ” says Congressman Jerry Nadler. “There are right-wing elements who want to read evil intent into everything. But in general the mood is: ‘We need movement.’ ”
Movement has commenced, no doubt about that. But what can we really expect? Says Aaron David Miller, who worked on the issue for six secretaries of State of both parties: “President Yes-We-Can is squaring off against a region and an Israeli prime minister saying No-You-Can’t.”
I heard a few theories as to why Obama went so public about the settlements. An intriguing one held that it wasn’t intended to be quite that public—that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, maybe in a slightly overeager attempt to please the boss, used language that was stronger than even Obama would have preferred at a late-May press conference, but that once she said it, the White House didn’t want to hang her out to dry as Bush had Colin Powell over North Korea. Once regionalists think that the secretary of State doesn’t have a president’s confidence, she’s cooked. (For the record, the unanimous verdict among my sources was that Clinton has Obama’s total confidence.)
Fascinating if true. But I have my own theory, which I’ve named the Easiest Log Theory. That is, you’re looking at a logjam. Under layers of timber, you can see the handful of logs that are really causing the problem. But you can’t start with those because you can’t get to them. You start with the ones that are easiest to remove. Water will flow, even if just a trickle. And eventually you’ll get to the big ones.
Israel and the settlements are the easiest log. There’s no point starting with the Palestinians: (a) They’re harder to deal with, and (b) who speaks for them anyway? (“They’re Humpty Dumpty,” said Miller.) Fatah and Hamas make the Republicans look coherent. So in my theory, the thinking is: Get a concession out of Bibi, which sorta-kinda happened when he used the words “Palestinian state” in his June 14 speech, and get the Israelis (and the key U.S. Jewish players) into a time-for-action mind-set. Then take that to the Palestinians—and, crucially, to other Arab leaders—and say: “Okay. They’ve moved. Your turn.”
Of course, I am not, and Obama is not, the first person in history to think of this. But two big factors are different now.
First, the Obama team. It’s strong. You have Clinton and Mitchell. You have a roster of second-tier players who were widely praised in my chats last week: Mara Rudman is Mitchell’s top aide; Fred Hoff is another; David Hale another (he’s moving to Jerusalem full time). On the National Security Council staff, Daniel Shapiro is widely respected, and Dennis Ross may be brought over, in a move presumably meant to placate Israeli hawks. As a group, they and others get high marks for knowledge, experience, and seriousness.
They do, some sources say, fall into different camps—not so much hawks and doves as, for example, those who want Obama to pursue broad regional deals simultaneously (that mostly means an Israel-Syria deal, which isn’t impossible); those who think the most important step is to elevate Palestinian moderates and isolate Hamas; those who are sensitive about pushing Israel too hard. This last category includes chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, but Emanuel, I’m told, is more intent on peace than people think. He’s called the Oslo Accords signing ceremony at the Clinton White House in 1993, which he choreographed, one his proudest moments. “[A solution] is sort of unfinished business from his earlier days,” says one insider.
Mostly, there’s Obama himself. He’s invested in getting a deal, and, unlike Bush, he’s deep in the details. “He’s advising the advisers,” says James Zogby of the Arab American Institute.
And the second thing that’s changed? Congress. Traditionally, Congress was, as one person told me, “the court of appeals for the Jews.” If Israel didn’t like what a president was up to, they went to Capitol Hill. They’d fix things.
That is suddenly and thoroughly different. If Netanyahu was surprised by Obama’s frankness, he was shocked to sit with Jewish members of Congress the next day and hear them say “It’s time to do this” instead of “We’ve got your back.” Nadler wasn’t present but confirms this reaction from friends who were. As long as Obama is showing leadership, and it looks like he might get results, Congress will watch his back more than Bibi’s.
No one expects miracles here. The paradox is that at this moment of resolve and openness in Washington, there is more fear and distrust in the region than usual. Obama will have to get tough on what’s called “Palestinian incitement” (anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, promotion of violence). And that’s even before getting to the real issues (borders, Jerusalem, the rest).
But at this early point, we can say this much. Obama wants to be a serious foreign-policy president. And his speech in Cairo, and his rhetoric of transformation in general, have clearly helped light a fuse that caught fire in Lebanon and in the demonstrations in Iran. But we’re now starting to enter the phase where the deeds need to match the speeches. This is emerging as the great tension of this presidency, from health care to the Middle East and now to Iran: Can he take advantage of the energies his words have set in motion?