MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE – On Barack Obama’s second day as president of the United States, he appointed George Mitchell as a special US envoy to the Middle East.
Four years later, regardless of the winner of Tuesday’s vote, there is almost no chance that the peace process will receive the same primacy at the start of the next term. Partly that’s because of the grinding stalemate between the parties, but a much larger factor is the grinding distress of the US economy.
America’s economic trouble was not only the dominant issue of the 2012 election, it pushed foreign policy out of the race almost entirely.
Mitt Romney tried to make political hay of Obama’s tense relationship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the looming possibility that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons. But the only international issue that really intruded on the campaign in its final, and most impactful weeks, was the terror attack that killed four US diplomats, including a US ambassador, in Libya on the 11th anniversary of September 11.
Even the incident in Libya, though, didn’t open up a debate about America’s approach to the Middle East or combating terrorism, but rather served as a spring board for recriminations and charges of manipulations, misquotes, poor judgment and ultimately a cover-up.
In a symbolic bellwether, the much-speculated “October surprise” – often imagined as an unexpected foreign policy crisis that shakes up the campaign days during its home stretch – this year came in the form of a domestic crisis, the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy.
The lack of attention to international issues on the campaign trail is almost certainly a harbinger of a similar lack of focus the president will devote at the start of his term – barring a “January surprise” of considerable global and US consequence.
The one mandate voters have bestowed during a deeply divided and extremely close presidential race is that job creation is their number one concern. Any new president will have to focus on this issue to show he was the right choice and earn Americans’ regard, particularly from the other side of the aisle.
Moreover, while there’s a small chance an unanticipated international incident could require significant presidential regard, there is a very definite economic predicament scheduled to come to a head in the coming months: sequestration. As the law stands now, if Congress and the White House don’t come to a deal by January 3, more than $1 trillion in across-the-board government reductions over the next 10 years – including to the military and entitlement programs – are set to automatically go into effect.
Though both parties have stressed that they want to keep the cuts from being triggered, the compromises needed from each side are so great – and so utterly absent until now – that the chance of this issue being resolved by Inauguration Day on January 20 is slim to none. And even a solution would mean months of aftermath that would be consuming for the president.
Some international issues will intrude early on in the next term, including Iran’s nuclear program, but for many global issues, the White House’s approach will likely be more crisis-management than proactive undertakings.
Middle East peace-making could be put on the back burner for some time. Of course, the volatile situation in the Holy Land can only simmer for so long before again erupting and demanding attention.
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