Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent In London

Bad blood will flow on foreign policy

Two writers assess the outlook for United States foreign and trade policies, as the Republicans look poised to sweep the Nov 4 mid-term congressional elections.

John Kerry, the perennially optimistic US Secretary of State, insists that the United States is not in retreat from global leadership. "We are as energised and flat-out as any administration in recent history," he said in a television interview over the weekend.

However, as a Republican triumph in this week's mid-term congressional elections appears inevitable, President Barack Obama and his officials look more besieged than ever, both at home and abroad. And it may be too late for Mr Obama to rescue his tarnished foreign and security policy credentials; both are "flat-out" as Mr Kerry put it, but on their backs.

The impending Republican victory is presented by Mr Obama's people in freak, natural disaster terms, with equally destructive outcomes. This is nonsense: the Republicans, who won the last two congressional elections, have controlled the House of Representatives for 16 out of the past 20 years. Far from being an exception, Republican control over the US legislature is the norm.

Nor should Congress be blamed for "obstructing" the President. The US Constitution was written with that explicit assumption: confrontation is not reprehensible, but the essence of American "check and balance" politics.

A key task for any US president is to shape debate on foreign and security matters by cajoling and compromising with legislators. That's often simpler to achieve than getting consensus on domestic issues, because a president's constitutional prerogatives in such matters are clearer, and because foreign and security policies usually enjoy bipartisan support.

Yet Mr Obama has gone out of his way to alienate Congress on precisely these matters. Administration officials criss-crossed the world preaching the virtues of democracy and strong parliaments in other countries, but then rubbished their own Congress, oblivious to the fact that this undermined their arguments.

Mr Obama himself has shown only contempt for Congress' role in foreign and security policy matters. When he did not want to launch air strikes against Syria last year, he pretended that congressional approval was required for any action, but then did nothing to get it. Yet when the President decided this year to launch a far more extensive air campaign in Syria and Iraq, he argued that he possessed all the powers to do so without consulting Congress.

Iran, another critical security matter, was handled in a similar way. Mr Obama came to office urging Congress not to strengthen the sanctions on Iran. But when Congress ignored him and Iran ultimately relented by returning to the negotiating table, Mr Obama claimed that "his sanctions" brought about this outcome. And now that a deal over Iran's nuclear weapons is in the offing, the White House is suggesting that it has the powers to lift some of the sanctions, even if Congress is against relaxing them.

Critics also say that while the National Security staff accountable to the President has expanded to 270 employees (a third more than those appointed to the National Security Council by President George W. Bush), they have sidelined the Pentagon and the State Department on foreign and security issues, yet lack their capacity to manage events.

The result is an administration invariably behind the curve in global events, which responds by talking first, and only then thinking of the consequences.

Equally bad have been the gaffes, including the President's own when he reportedly described his foreign policy as "don't do stupid stuff" - hardly a guiding principle for any nation, let alone a superpower.

Mr David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine and the author of a new book on American Leadership In The Age Of Fear, put it well when he recently urged Mr Obama's officials to stop treating national security as a television talk show in which "the message" is more important than substance. "It's fine not to say anything if, in fact, you have nothing to say," he wrote in a biting commentary.

Pundits in Washington predict that Mr Obama will reshuffle his foreign and security teams soon after the mid-term elections. And with just two years remaining to his term, the President may well reinvent himself as an international statesman.

But the bad blood between the President and Congress will continue to flow. And, as senior officials begin to desert his administration in search of new jobs and start publishing their memoirs, more unfavourable revelations about the President are likely to surface.

The Obama presidency is unlikely to go down in history as a glorious episode for US diplomacy. But it should not be considered as symptomatic of an irreversible American decline on the global stage either.

While the US is no longer the only superpower, it is still, by far, the most formidable single military and economic entity, and the only country able to marshal a global system of alliances of like-minded nations. Its military budget may be going down, but the US is still responsible for two-thirds of the world's spending on military innovation, and its technological lead in such fields is, if anything, expanding.

And, while it is true that the US public is tired of foreign interventions, it is also true that American voters hate to see their country pushed around: my bet is that foreign policy will be a critical plank in the next presidential election, and that presidential candidates will emphasise their readiness to use force when required.

Nor should one underestimate what a president can do to turn an isolationist mood around: just recall Mr Ronald Reagan who, a mere five years after America's humiliating retreat from Vietnam, persuaded his nation to launch its biggest rearmament programme, a plan which hastened the Soviet Union's collapse.

So, a turnaround in US foreign and security policy is not merely possible, but very likely. Although that may have to wait till Mr Obama's departure from the White House.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com