It only looks like President Obama decided to run away from home after the drubbing he received in the midterm elections. The president, who normally conceals his emotions under a veneer of smooth equanimity, looked downright sad in his post-election press conference.
Not all presidents hunger for public affection as visibly as, say, Bill Clinton did. But everyone wants to be loved. And Obama had reason to feel that Americans, who swooned over him just a few years earlier, had fallen out of love. It had to hurt. That's why the trip to faraway India, in fact planned a long time ago, could only come as a relief.
Now that he and his party have lost control of the U.S. House, foreign policy will beckon. In some parts of the world, Obama remains the un-Bush: deeply admired and liked. Obama still sets hearts atwitter in Europe, although in Arab and Muslim countries the love has deflated to the dismal levels of the Bush days. Still, Obama will likely find himself paying more attention to foreign policy in the months to come. And that's not just because domestic dealings could prove rather unpleasant in the divided-government era. The president -- and the country -- will soon face some monumentally important foreign-policy decisions.
At home, Obama's wishes will carry less weight. On foreign affairs the president has much more latitude. And, on some issues the new Congress could actually prove more closely aligned with the president's views.
Remember the line in Bob Woodruff's book Obama's War, when the president is trying to figure out what to do about Afghanistan? One of Obama's most damaging foreign-policy decisions, in my view, was his announcement of a withdrawal date for U.S. troops from Afghanistan. If he had set such a date, he should not have broadcast it to the Taliban, the Pakistanis and the Afghans. Woodruff quotes Obama as making that decision because, in the president's words, ``I can't lose the whole Democratic Party.''
Republicans, will presumably give Obama more leeway in projecting American strength, although one large unknown remains about the incoming Congress: Nobody knows where the tea party stands on foreign policy.
Will they support muscular internationalism or a massive retrenchment, in keeping with their deficit-slashing aspirations?
On foreign policy, Obama's chapter in American history could well end up being remembered for the outcome of his attempt to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands. The moment of truth on Iran grows closer every day. A new round of negotiations with Tehran could start in the coming days, but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already hinted they will fail as miserably as previous efforts. War will be avoided if the Islamic Republic believes America will go to war to prevent it from obtaining arms.
Ironically, if Tehran does not believe a war is possible, then war may become inevitable. In order for America to be strong on this issue --as in so many others in foreign affairs -- the American president must be strong. With Republican support, the domestically weakened Obama could emerge stronger on the global arena, thus strengthening America.
On Iraq, Washington will have to keep a close eye, and a flexible stance. Americans have emotionally withdrawn from that war.
But an upsurge in violence, a political stalemate, and a troubling return of al Qaeda in Iraq raise new concerns. (Last week, after a massacre of Iraqi Christians, al Qaeda warned that Iraqi Christians stand ``at the doors of destruction.'')
Another enormously troubling Middle Eastern spot is Lebanon, where a country once friendly to the United Nations, is inching closer to Iran by the day. Hezbollah, the Shiite militia created by Iran is threatening the country in advance of a U.N. report on the assassination of a former prime minister. If the report blames Hezbollah, as is likely, a Hezbollah coup might follow.
Then, of course, there is the Middle East peace process, a difficult but worthy pursuit, and one where Obama's own missteps have complicated the situation.
America could benefit from a little more presidential attention to Asia, Obama's latest travel destination, and long-neglected Latin America.
After the ``shellacking'' of Nov. 2, Obama will find himself drawn to pressing foreign affairs.
That arena will give him a break from tedious dust-ups with Republicans on domestic issues, which could diminish him in the voters' eyes. There, he will look strong and presidential, just as he tries to regain all that lost love in time for the next elections.