The Democrats took a drubbing in the US midterm elections on November 2, losing the majority they had held in the House of Representatives for the past four years. Voter anger was fuelled by persistently high unemployment rates leading many analysts to conclude that Obama will spend more energy focussing on domestic affairs. This is a dangerous assumption.
A Republican dominated Congress can scuttle any domestic initiatives Obama undertakes. Frustrating his legislative agenda could further deplete his standing for the 2012 presidential elections. This is within the Republicans’ prerogative, since American constitutional structures give Congress final say in setting domestic policy. However, foreign policy is almost solely controlled by the president. Blocked off from making progress in the domestic arena, Obama might turn his mind forcefully to the world stage. There are historical precedents for this. After facing reversals in midterm elections, Ronald Reagan massively ramped up military competition with the Soviet Union and invaded Grenada, Bill Clinton bombed Bosnia, and George W Bush ‘surged’ in Iraq.
Obama has embarked on a high-profile tour to Asia less than three days after the elections. An overseas trip at a time of domestic weakness is partly an attempt to signal decisiveness and authority, focussing attention on Obama-the-statesman. It also points to an emerging security architecture in Asia, geared towards hemming in China. In the coming weeks Obama has, in theory, a number of foreign policy issues where he can seek to make a mark. He could heighten the currency war with China or bring money laundering and drug trafficking charges against Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela. Already Republican law-makers have called on Obama to ‘destroy’ Iran. Though unlikely, a dangerous confrontation with Iran cannot be fully discounted. There could be implications for Pakistan as well. Military efforts in Afghanistan could be intensified, particularly in light of Nato’s current charm-offensive to keep allied troops in the country till at least 2014, and the impending White House strategy review due in December. The tempo of cross-border attacks and raids on Pakistani territory could also be increased, coupled with diplomatic pressure.
But Obama faces a growing constraint that his predecessors did not: the relative decline of American global power. The US possesses massive social, economic and demographic resources to ensure that it will remain a highly developed country and a force to be reckoned with in international affairs. But power is a relational concept. As BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and other developing nations surge forward at a faster pace, the US will be less able to act as an empire dictating terms to the rest of the world. Perhaps it is this haemorrhaging of ‘superpower’ that has also rankled American voters. According to pollsters, a majority have felt since President Bush’s second term that their country is “headed in the wrong direction.” Thus, when Tea-Partiers declare that they wish to “take the country back,” one almost senses they wish to take it back in time to when American hegemony seemed assured well into the 21st century.
Yet no empire in history has given up its spoils peaceably. The two world wars of the 20th century are a nightmarish testament to the violence unleashed by European empires jockeying about the imperial pecking order. The world is different now and one hopes that it will act differently too. But Obama might well turn out not to be a lame duck but a wounded bear.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2010.