The American Interest

Second-Time Charms

Second-term U.S. presidents tend to focus more on world affairs than on domestic issues, for good or for ill.  In January 1957, Dwight Eisenhower authorized the commitment of U.S. forces “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence” of any nation that requested help against communist aggression.  Ronald Reagan, after his reelection in 1984, vigorously promoted the “rollback” of Soviet positions around the world, instead of the mere containment that had defined U.S. strategy for decades.  During his second term Bill Clinton articulated the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention,” and in the final months of his presidency he made a concerted effort to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.  And George W. Bush’s doctrine of unilateral interventionism and preventive warfare reached its mature form during his last four years in the Oval Office.

Barack Obama is poised to be an exception to the rule.  In his second term he will likely follow a cautious foreign policy that would leave him free to focus on the Fiscal Cliff, healthcare, Social Security, and immigration reform.  He wants to transform America in line with his ideological convictions, sees “nation-building at home” as his legacy, and has no transformational global objectives.  The appointments of John...

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