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Obama seeks political refuge now in foreign affairs

Protesters in India protest the visit of Democrat President Barack Obama 11-7-10

After what he himself described as a "shellacking" in Tuesday's midterm elections, President Obama fled the U.S. for 10 days of sightseeing, diplomacy and commercial promotion in Asia, starting with India. Not everyone in the world's most populous democracy seemed happy about the Democrat's four-day stay (See photo above).

The president will go on to South Korea, Japan and his childhood home of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. The twice-delayed voyage forced a postponement in Obama's planned bipartisan politics summit to kick off the new era of some shared power with Republicans in Washington.

But it does afford Obama an opportunity to get the public discussion off Democrat defeats and provides an ample dose of exotic pomp, photo ops and circumstance including a state dinner Monday in New Delhi. Everyone will be watching to see if this glittering U.S.-India social affair remains Salahi-free.

The trip also throws onstage for the American leader the issue of foreign affairs, which our esteemed, bearded colleague Doyle McManus notes, was strangely absent during the recently raucous election campaign, despite an ongoing war. We wanted to share with Ticket readers his most recent and always insightful regular Washington column, available over here.

Additionally here is Doyle's post-election take on the ominous political outlook for Obama, who is not a Bill Clinton, he writes.

By Doyle McManus

Here's one thing last week's congressional election wasn't about: foreign policy. The campaign was long, loud and polarized, but somehow the fact that the United States is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq — and carrying out bombings in Pakistan and Yemen — went almost unmentioned.

That's because voters were preoccupied by the economy, of course. But it's also....

...because foreign policy has been a zone of relative bipartisanship in Washington, an oasis of civility compared with the battlegrounds of economic policy and healthcare.

That's about to end. As the 2012 presidential campaign gets underway, potential Republican candidates, including Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, are sharpening their critiques of President Obama as a foreign policy leader. In Congress, meanwhile, the main victims of the election were middle-ground Democrats; the parties that remain are even more polarized between thoroughgoing liberals and hard-line conservatives.

That leaves Obama in the middle, which could turn out to be a good spot. The president can't do much to make the economy recover more quickly, and he hasn't found a way to make his healthcare law more popular, but he still has the powers of his office in foreign policy. In diplomacy, unlike domestic policy, a president can act first and worry about Congress later.
Democrat president Barack Obama ponders historic election losses for his party at a news conference 11-3-10
The biggest issue, not surprisingly, will be Afghanistan, where Obama has more than doubled the number of U.S. troops but also set a target date of July 2011 to begin a gradual drawdown.

Republican hawks such as Arizona's Republican Sen. John McCain praised the escalation but criticized the exit date; Democratic doves such as Wisconsin's Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, who lost his bid for reelection last week, weren't happy about the surge but took comfort in the calendar.

Obama has made it clear that he is serious about reducing the number of U.S. troops — and, even if that weren't his starting point, he faces pressure from within his own party to begin a drawdown soon. The most immediate danger to Obama's reelection would be a primary challenge from the left by Feingold or some other disenchanted dove, and the president would like to head that off.

By comparison, criticism from the right could actually help him; the Afghan conflict is deeply unpopular, and Obama might benefit from casting his Republican opponents as champions of a bigger, longer, more expensive war.

Other foreign policy issues will test candidate Obama as well.

On Iran, the president kept a campaign promise to seek negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program, which made hawks nervous; but so far, the main product of "engagement" has been stronger economic sanctions, which have quieted criticism from the right (except from a few super-hawks who favor preemptive U.S. military action). Now, Obama needs to catch a break on timing.

Most estimates are that Iran is at least two years away from developing a nuclear weapon. If Iran buckles under economic sanctions and proposes a deal, Obama will face tough scrutiny from the right over the terms of any compromise, but that's a problem he'd be glad to face. In the unlikely event Iran succeeds in making a bomb before the election, that will become the greatest crisis of the Obama presidency, and his performance will define him in the eyes of voters.

In the Middle East, after initial missteps, Obama succeeded in relaunching peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but this is unlikely to hurt or help him much. His attempts to apply pressure to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been lessons in the limits of U.S. power, not its possibilities.

If Obama's popularity were still at its peak, he might be tempted to spend more time on Middle East peacemaking, but this is one case where political weakness at home makes activism abroad more hazardous.

For the rest of Doyle's latest Obama analysis, click here.

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Photo: Sanjeev Gupta / EPA (Indian protesters burn Obama photos during his four-day stay); Alex Wong / Getty Images (Obama ponders his party's historic election losses at a White House news conference 11-3-10).

 
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Sightseeing? Really, LAT, really? I am now fully convinced that any body who can define or spell journalism has left the Los Angeles Times.

Is it really necessary to burn a doll of Obama...


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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