When U.S. presidents are stymied domestically in second terms, many flex their muscles by turning to foreign policy, where there are fewer constraints on their power.
President Barack Obama is certainly stymied, which he acknowledged in Tuesday's State of the Union address by saying he will bypass an intransigent Congress when possible and rely on executive orders to advance his domestic agenda. Unfortunately, that could consign him and the nation to small issues here at home, and leave larger challenges such as job creation and tax reform unmet. Republicans in Congress need to rediscover the art of compromise.
But rather than taking refuge in an aggressive, pumped-up foreign policy, Obama said he will move the nation off the permanent war footing it's been on since 9/11. He noted his draw down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan en route to ending that long war by year's end. He trumpeted imposing "prudent limits on the use of drones," said he will reform National Security Agency surveillance programs, and push, once more, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay -- all things he needs to get done. And he expressed a strong preference for diplomacy rather than military force in hot spots such as Iran and Syria.
That's not a particularly muscular foreign policy, but it's the right approach for a war weary nation in a world of complex threats.
The administration must be ever vigilant to deter terrorists in the United States and in radical hotbeds such as Yemen, Iraq and Somalia. And U.S. defenses against relatively new threats such as cyberterrorism must be cutting edge. But Obama is right to be wary of troop-intensive foreign adventures, long-shot attempts at nation building and targeted strikes that can feed anti-Western extremism.
Despite little success in muscling Congress, Obama is right to resist exhortations to muscle other nations.