WASHINGTON -- Foreign policy was so irrelevant in the midterm election that the first sentence of this column -- unwisely beginning with the words "foreign policy" -- is likely to weed out many readers looking for juicier bits of election reaction.
But invisible things such as oxygen, God and foreign affairs can still be consequential. And last week's election will have the scariest kind of influence on America's role in the world: massive and unclear.
Any president facing gridlock on domestic policy is propelled toward the international stage, where the spotlight shines on him alone. Every new House Republican committee chairman will be the ruler of a budget kingdom. Only one American at a time is commander in chief. And the coming debates on budget cuts and repeal of health care reform may make the Middle East conflict appear solvable in comparison.
But this method of establishing relevance is unlikely to work. It is the cherished myth of the diplomat that global challenges exist because they lack attention. Actually, most international problems exist because of internal dynamics that have little to do with a failure of American focus. Palestinian leaders are divided -- unable to deliver on the agreements they are too weak to make in the first place. Israelis feel relatively safe behind security walls, uninclined toward risky compromise and concerned mainly about Iran. An increasingly militarized Iranian regime sees a strategic advantage in both dangling the prospect of talks and relentlessly expanding its nuclear capabilities.
There is one area where presidential attention is decisive -- the threat and use of military force. But once a threat is made -- say, against Iran -- it is the enemy that determines the course of the confrontation, through compliance or defiance. When a president threatens force, he also loses control. And Barack Obama seems to be a man who values control.