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In Act II foreign policy could be more dicey

Perhaps the most improbable thing about Barack Obama’s first term – excepting his occupying the White House to begin with – was his overseeing a foreign policy that many times gave rise to the charge among progressive types that the policy seemed to be channeling that of George W. Bush. All things considered, one would hardly have anticipated this of an Obama, given the label of communist, socialist, liberal, etc with which he was variously tarred, all of them polar opposites of what Bush was all about. Although it’s all academic now, the president having handily won a second term, maintaining a hawkish demeanor is something that sells much better among Republicans, where the Obama support was guaranteed negligible, than among Democrats. Which is by way of saying political survivability calculations couldn’t possibly have driven the hard-line look of much of the first-term foreign policy record.

But true to form, hawkish moves and notable successes notwithstanding, the president has been the target of some on the right for one thing or another of his foreign policy game plan. Frequently partnered with Senator John McCain in these assaults on the administration’s direction, Senator Lindsey Graham was recently seen in full anti-Obama stride, with the unfortunate Benghazi episode as his issue du jour for the umpteenth time. He would use procedural tactics, he said, to block Senate confirmation of the president’s nominees for secretary of defense and head of the C.I.A, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan respectively, if he did not get information on what went down in Benghazi about which he thinks the administration has not been forthcoming.

It matters not whether there’s really anything of significance still to be revealed about Benghazi, what matters is the opportunity the situation provides for theater, as we noted in connection with McCain’s questioning of Hagel during the latter’s confirmation hearings. Graham getting on a Sunday TV soapbox and saying his piece, more so when having dramatic headline-making stuff to “drop” -- like threatening to derail the president’s nominations -- that’s bonanza writ large for one constantly on a spotlight search. Carrying through the threat of that reckless action would be something else entirely, though. You hope that Graham, who has been known on occasion to remind party colleagues that there are consequences in losing an election, gets right with himself and acknowledges that, barring the uncovering of some irredeemable malfeasance or some other stark disqualifier, this or any other president is entitled to the nominee of his choice. But there was so little on the foreign policy front that the president offered for Republicans to reasonably pick apart, that Benghazi, with its tragic cover story of American diplomats killed on the job, looked to be a veritable feast for bloodthirsty hounds.

It’s fair to assume that once the situation in Syria continues its protracted, grinding course – an obstinate leader without the capability to swiftly annihilate the opposition and rebels determined not to quit – that Middle East powder keg figures to be one of the thorny issues with which the second-term Obama must contend. It recently came to light that the Syrian conflict had already been the cause of dissension, even within the administration, before the first term ended, with most of the president’s top advisers reportedly favoring supplying arms to the Syrian insurgency and Obama balking because of the fear of arms falling into the wrong hands. The president may well have had Libya in his thoughts when he put the brakes on any plan to arm Syrian rebels. But as a prelude to Obama Act II, such intra-Democratic tension practically guarantees that a still-simmering Syria will provide fodder for the second-term opposition.

There are those, of course, who believe there’s hardly a situation involving political change, revolution or what-have-you in any country around the world in which the U.S. shouldn’t become an active player. One guy whose track record and utterances would place him to be squarely of that ilk is Dick Cheney, who was just heard from, sounding off about the president’s secretary of defense nominee. The acerbic former veep’s deep analysis of Obama’s selection of Hagel is that the president deviously wants a Republican to take the fall for the decimation of America’s military capability that the commander in chief has in mind. Cheney has long since qualified for what we choose to call the “isolate and ignore” group, sharing space there with the likes of buffoons named Trump and Limbaugh. Why are the trashy mutterings of these characters allowed entry into the realm of serious discourse?

But Cheney’s wing-nut theories aside, it’s a good bet that current administration thinking about the size of the military will generate some incoming heat. The president has made clear his view that the military’s focus should be on fighting smarter, given a totally different primary threat to America’s national security than a couple of decades ago. On the Republican side the unending fixation on deficit consciousness and the need for massive spending cuts always seems to bypass the military when the budget axe is being swung, favoring instead even greater spending in that area. Some slight pushback the president has gotten from the progressive side – some recent noises made about the use of drones, for example – pales by comparison to what’s waiting in the wings to make the second go-round less foreign policy smooth than the first.

Updated 6:31 pm, February 12, 2013:
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