The Republican Party in the United States has adopted positions on social issues and the environment that are at odds with those of the majority of the voting public. Their signature opposition to “Obamacare” is losing ground. Both parties gerrymander and receive large sums from major donors, but Republican legislators benefit more from laws reaffirmed or struck down by a one-vote margin on the Supreme Court. Gerrymandered Congressional districts drawn up by gerrymandered state legislatures have tipped the scales toward the Grand Old Party in the House of Representatives. Republican legislators are betting that they do not have to make deals with the Obama administration to retain control of the House and perhaps win the Senate in November. They cannot win the presidency on domestic issues, but the Obama administration is one damaging foreign policy and national security crisis away from handing the keys to the White House over to the Republican Party in 2016.
Over time, Ukraine may become a signal success for the West, if Kiev has competent leadership and receives sufficient economic and military assistance to deal with domestic challenges and to reorient the country toward Europe. In the short run, however, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the tentative, circumscribed nature of U.S. and NATO responses have undermined President Obama’s standing on the world stage. Those around him provide insufficient help for trials of this magnitude.
The daily drumbeat of media opposition to the Obama administration from the echo chamber of Fox News and right-wing radio do not sway the voting public – they reinforce grievances of those already convinced. Foreign and national security crises affect broader audiences. Once a president’s perceived standing to represent U.S. interests abroad begins to slip, it’s easier to slide further downhill than to reverse course. If another damaging crisis accompanies the continued decline in defense spending, a strong Republican presidential candidate can buck demographic trends and move into the White House. Reconsidering deficit reduction is good politics and good for national security.
Three foreign crises could be looming. The first is with China over offshore islands that U.S. friends and allies claim. The second is with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel, which is seething over the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and its response to the formation of a new Palestinian coalition government that includes Hamas. Localized Israeli military action would not come as a surprise, prompted by casualties taken at home. The third is the growing possibility of another confrontation between India and Pakistan in which Washington’s standard crisis-management playbook proves insufficient. The next attack on a major airport could be in India instead of Pakistan.
It’s possible that all three of these crises can be avoided over the remainder of the Obama presidency. China’s leadership is focusing on economic growth, corruption and social cohesion. Palestinian leaders might reason that this is not a good time to carry out attacks against Israelis. President Obama and his partners might succeed in negotiating an outcome with Iran that is far more protective of Israeli interests than the cartoon depiction of the nuclear threat used by Netanyahu to instruct the UN General Assembly in September 2012. And perhaps India and Pakistan will finally improve relations by engineering a substantial growth in direct trade – a deal that will not be interrupted by yet another spectacular act of terrorism in India by the usual suspects in Pakistan, either unencumbered or assisted by Pakistan’s intelligence services. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are, after all, facing severe internal security threats, and have good reason to avoid another confrontation with India.
Realistically speaking, the odds of avoiding every one of these crises are less than the odds of something going badly wrong. The focus of my next post will be on signs of trouble ahead in South Asia.