The central challenge now facing President Obama is how to regain some of the ground lost in recent years in shaping U.S. national security policy. Historically and politically in America’s system of separation of powers, the president has the greatest leeway for decisive action in foreign affairs. The country views him as responsible for Americans’ safety in an increasingly turbulent world — the ultimate definer of the goals that the United States should pursue through its diplomacy, economic leverage, and, if need be, military compulsion. And the world sees him — for better or worse — as the authentic voice of America.
To be sure, Congress has a voice. So does the public. And so do vested interests and foreign-policy lobbies. Congress’ role in declaring war is especially important not when the United States is the victim of an attack, but when the United States is planning to wage war. Because America is a democracy, public support for presidential foreign-policy decisions is essential. But no one in the government or outside it can match the president’s authoritative voice when he speaks and then acts decisively.
This is true even in the face of determined opposition. Even when some lobbies succeed in gaining congressional support for their particular foreign clients in defiance of the president, for instance, many congressional signatories still quietly convey to the White House their readiness to support the president if he stands firm for “the national interest.” And a president who is willing to do so publicly, while skillfully cultivating friends and allies on Capitol Hill, can then establish such intimidating credibility that it is politically unwise to confront him. This is exactly what Obama must do now.
Obama needs to think carefully about his second-term agenda. What kind of legacy does he want to leave? And here, what not to do is just as important as what to do. A president who aspires to be recognized as a global leader should not stake out a foreign-policy goal, commit himself eloquently to its attainment, and then yield the ground when confronted by firm opposition. The bottom line is that — whether dealing with Russia’s antagonistic Vladimir Putin, the increasingly self-confident leadership of a dramatically rising China, the elusive and evasive Iranians, or the so-called Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” — Obama’s success will depend on the degree to which he is seen as truly committed and dead serious. Commitment and credibility go hand in hand.
For example, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the unfortunate fact is that under the last three presidents, U.S. policy has been either sincere but gutless, or simply cynical. The recent U.N. vote granting Palestine nonmember observer-state status, in which the United States — despite its intense efforts — obtained the support of only eight states out of a total 188 voting or abstaining, marks a nadir of sorts, showing the dramatically declined global respect for the U.S. capability to cope with an issue that is morally troubling today and, in the long run, explosive. It dramatizes the consequences for the United States of declined bipartisanship in foreign affairs and the increased influence of lobbies, thus underlining the need for assertive presidential leadership.
A president has two moments of grand opportunity. The first occurs during his initial year because by the fourth year, any attained success will erase the political costs incurred earlier. If he is reelected, the second opportunity arises in the first year of the second term — only this time history, not the public, will henceforth be his ultimate judge. Obama has demonstrated a genuinely incisive intellectual grasp of the new challenges that America confronts on the world scene. But he needs to be a leader now. He may never have a better chance to shape what future historians write about his legacy.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, is author most recently of “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.”