Everybody Loves a Winner
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: April 20, 2010
I’ve been thinking about President Obama’s foreign policy lately, but first, a golf tip: I went to Dave Pelz’s famous short-game school this winter to improve my putting and chipping, and a funny thing happened — my long game got better. It brings to mind something that happened to Obama. The president got health care reform passed, and it may turn out to be his single most important foreign policy achievement.
In politics and diplomacy, success breeds authority and authority breeds more success. No one ever said it better than Osama bin Laden: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”
Have no illusions, the rest of the world was watching our health care debate very closely, waiting to see who would be the strong horse — Obama or his Democratic and Republican health care opponents? At every turn in the debate, America’s enemies and rivals were gauging what the outcome might mean for their own ability to push around an untested U.S. president.
It remains to be seen whether, in the long run, America will be made physically healthier by the bill’s passage. But, in the short run, Obama definitely was made geopolitically healthier.
“When others see the president as a winner or as somebody who has real authority in his own house, it absolutely makes a difference,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said to me in an interview. “All you have to do is look at how many minority or weak coalition governments there are around the world who can’t deliver something big in their own country, but basically just teeter on the edge, because they can’t put together the votes to do anything consequential, because of the divided electorate.” President Obama has had “a divided electorate and was still able to muscle the thing through.”
When President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia spoke by phone with Obama the morning after the health care vote — to finalize the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty — he began by saying that before discussing nukes, “I want to congratulate you, Mr. President, on the health care vote,” an administration official said. That was not just rank flattery. According to an American negotiator, all throughout the arms talks, which paralleled the health care debate, the Russians kept asking: “Can you actually get this ratified by the Senate” if an arms deal is cut? Winning passage of the health care bill demonstrated to the Russians that Obama could get something hard passed.
Our enemies surely noticed, too. You don’t have to be Machiavelli to believe that the leaders of Iran and Venezuela shared the barely disguised Republican hope that health care would fail and, therefore, Obama’s whole political agenda would be stalled and, therefore, his presidency enfeebled. He would then be a lame duck for the next three years and America would be a lame power.
Given the time and energy and political capital that was spent on health care, “failure would have been unilateral disarmament,” added Gates. “Failure would have badly weakened the president in terms of dealing with others — his ability to do various kinds of national security things. ... You know, people made fun of Madeleine [Albright] for saying it, but I think she was dead on: most of the rest of the world does see us as the ‘indispensable nation.’ ”
Indeed, our allies often complain about a world of too much American power, but they are not stupid. They know that a world of too little American power is one they would enjoy even less. They know that a weak America is like a world with no health insurance — and a lot of pre-existing conditions.
Gen. James Jones, the president’s national security adviser, told me that he recently met with a key NATO counterpart, who concluded a breakfast by congratulating him on the health care vote and pronouncing: “America is back.”
But is it? While Obama’s health care victory prevented a power outage for him, it does not guarantee a power surge. Ultimately, what makes a strong president is a strong country — a country whose underlying economic prowess, balance sheet and innovative capacity enable it to generate and project both military power and what the political scientist Joe Nye calls “soft power” — being an example that others want to emulate.
What matters most now is how Obama uses the political capital that health care’s passage has earned him. I continue to believe that the most important foreign policy issue America faces today is its ability to successfully engage in nation building — nation building at home.
Obama’s success in passing health care and the bounce it has put in his step will be nothing but a sugar high if we can’t get our deficit under control, inspire a new generation of start-ups, upgrade our railroads and Internet and continue to attract the world’s smartest and most energetic immigrants.
An effective, self-confident president with a weak country is nothing more than a bluffer. An effective, self-confident president, though, at least increases the odds of us building a stronger country.