Slow Down the Obama Bandwagon

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Let me state my allegiances at the start. I don't consider myself a liberal, or even a Democrat. But I'm on board the Barack Obama bandwagon. I'm drinking the Kool-Aid and going back for refills. As far as I'm concerned, Obama's declaration last Sunday that he's not not running for President was just about the most exciting development in American politics since the birth of the party system. Like many Americans, I want Obama to run in 2008. And though two years is an eternity, I fully expect that if he runs, he would win.

I just hope he doesn't.

It's nothing against Obama. The notes of caution that have been raised about his quasi-candidacy — his youth, his lack of legislative experience, his excruciating even-handedness — still strike me as his chief selling points as a politician. His mere presence in the 2008 campaign would have the potential to elevate the political discourse, transcend America's red-blue divide and maybe even make the country a better place. The trouble is what happens the morning after. Whoever prevails in November 2008 will inherit a welter of foreign-policy challenges, courtesy of the Bush Administration, that could well dominate much of the new President's first term — and consume so much political capital that it will be impossible to win a second.

Iraq is the most obvious headache. Though the Bush Administration appears to be laying the groundwork for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, there's every reason to believe that Americans will still be fighting and dying there on Inauguration Day, 2009. But whatever public support that still exists for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq will have vanished by then. And so, barring a miraculous compromise between Iraq's feuding factions, President Obama may well be the man who withdraws the last Americans from Iraq and sends the country descending into all-out civil war. Try running for reelection on that.

And that's just the start. Unless Iran's ruling clerics have a change of heart or its pro-Western middle class rises in revolt, Tehran will likely declare itself a nuclear power sometime during the next presidency, knowing that the U.S. military is too stretched and exhausted to stop it. As North Korea's isolation deepens, Pyongyang may start peddling its nuclear possessions to all manner of interested buyers. Meanwhile, as Richard Haas argues in the current Foreign Affairs, the greater Arab world is likely to grow more radical, more unstable and less amenable to U.S. influence. And that's not to mention the prosepct of future Darfurs, which the next President will find even tougher to stop, given the American public's growing aversion to foreign adventures and the military's inevitable, post-Iraq conflict fatigue.

The argument could be made that Obama's deliberative intelligence is precisely what the world needs to deal with threats like these. But I worry that Obama could be the next Jimmy Carter, another first-rate intellect who took over after the country's last national nightmare, Watergate, pursued a sensible foreign policy and was still undone by events — such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution — that had their roots in his predecessors' failures. Carter's misfortunes, of course, allowed Ronald Reagan to come along and tap into the country's yearning to bury the ghosts of Vietnam and become great again. It helped that the Reagan Presidency coincided with the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev. Either way, it is Reagan, not Carter, who gets credit for helping to end the Cold War and now occupies a place in history's Presidential pantheon.

Will Obama get there too? I hope so. But he has a far better chance of achieving greatness if he avoids the poisoned chalice that Bush will hand to his successor. At some point, Americans will be ready to shake the trauma of the Iraq disaster and embrace a new President's vision of a better future — and give him the full eight years to pull it off. A Barack run in 2008 wouldn't be a bad thing — even if he loses, a Presidential bid would provide him a national platform and give him time and space to articulate his views. It would also be good for America. So go ahead and root for Obama to run in 2008. Just save your vote for 2012.