Thursday, January 08, 2009

It May Not Be the Economy, Stupid, in the End

By Stuart Rothenberg

The 2008 presidential race ultimately turned not on the war in Iraq (as many of us thought it would 18 months ago) but on the dramatic crisis in the nation’s financial industry. So it isn’t surprising that the health of the nation’s economy — an economy plagued by rising unemployment, the specter of large corporate bankruptcies and the threat of deflation — has become the top priority of the incoming Obama administration.

But politics, given both recent history and the events in the Middle East over the past week, takes interesting twists and turns, and if recent history is any guide, incoming President Barack Obama may find himself spending more of his time and energy on foreign policy than on any other single issue within the next year or two.

George W. Bush, after all, was initially elected to cut taxes, to turn the page on Bill Clinton’s personal failings and to reverse the country’s cultural drift to the left, not necessarily to begin a war in Iraq.

Four years later, Bush won a second term on his perceived ability to lead the fight in the war on terror, only to have to deal with domestic crises from Hurricane Katrina to a slowing economy and a mortgage crisis and financial meltdown.

But twisting priorities didn’t start with the current President Bush. Jimmy Carter, for example, was elected after Watergate to clean up Washington, D.C., but ended up looking overwhelmed by an energy shortage, stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis.

Vice President-elect Joseph Biden surely was correct when he predicted during the presidential campaign that Obama would be tested by one of America’s adversaries shortly after his inauguration.

The current list of international problems includes a head-spinning litany of instabilities, dangerous personalities, longtime animosities and potential hot spots that would make even the most experienced diplomat shake her head in concern.

Islamic terrorism continues to be a serious danger, whether domestically or internationally, as the recent attack in Mumbai, India, demonstrated.

Bush’s initial optimistic assessment of Vladimir Putin now looks like a self- delusion, as Russia talks increasingly tough about missiles and flexes its muscle. After invading Georgia (and using the same old Soviet-style excuses and accusations), the Russian government could well crank up the heat on Ukraine (indeed, it already is doing so), trying to take advantage of ethnic and political differences in the country.

Venezuelan dictator Hugo Ch├ívez is seeking to change his country’s constitution to allow himself to stay in office, and he continues to try to cause trouble in South America, where a number of left-of-center governments have backed away from the free market and may be backing away from democratic principles. Chavez’s over-the-top rhetoric makes him easy to dismiss, but the Obama administration may still have to figure out how to deal with him, especially if he seeks to destabilize U.S. allies in the region.

Iran continues to be a problem, and if intelligence reports in the near future suggest that that country is closer to attaining nuclear weapons than some now assume, the Obama administration would be faced with a huge problem.

And who knows what other trouble spots will emerge in the next year or two?

Obama has received almost universally good reviews (except from a handful on the left) for his foreign policy team. Even Republicans and many conservatives have praised Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and Janet Napolitano’s toughness and smarts, and Robert Gates and James Jones bring years of experience, knowledge and dedication to their jobs.

But we ought not forget that the national security team assembled eight years ago by the then-incoming President Bush, which included Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President (and former Defense Secretary) Dick Cheney, was also generally viewed as smart, experienced, tough and even pragmatic.

Forty years before that team was brought together, the foreign policy team assembled by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, which included such accomplished men as Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge and William Bundy, Clark Clifford and Nicholas Katzenbach, began America’s road down a war in Southeast Asia. Journalist David Halberstam titled his book on those decision makers “The Best and the Brightest,” a reference to their credentials — but not to their performance.

I’m not at all suggesting that Obama’s team will make the same mistakes that Bush’s did or that Kennedy’s and Johnson’s did. Nor am I arguing that experience, smarts and credentials are unimportant. Not at all.

I’m merely noting that no matter how good a team looks — whether it’s the 2008 Detroit Tigers or the Bush or Obama foreign policy teams — it’s performance that matters most.

Even more important in the case of a foreign policy team, it’s the “decider,” the president, who matters the most. His decisions are final, even if he is the only one arguing one side of an issue.

Anyone who is absolutely certain that Barack Obama’s reputation (let alone the 2010 or 2012 elections) will turn on the new president’s decisions during the first 100 or 200 days of his term — or on the economy — might want to recall how quickly issues changed over the past couple of years.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 6, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.