While most midterm elections turn on specific policies, this year's will turn on much more – America's place in the world, both economically, as the interest on the debt continues to consume a greater part of the US gross domestic product, and strategically, as current policies of international engagement can be misinterpreted as opportunities to attack the U.S. or its allies.
"This will be the most important midterm election of our lifetime," is an assessment all too accurate.
Although we shall not be electing a president in November, a new Congress, through committee hearings and appropriations, can have a dramatic effect on either enabling President Obama's policies, or slowing them down.
Here is what is at stake on November 2nd:
1. The role of the United States in the world. Most Americans believe we have been a force for good: Our contribution to victory against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan was irreplaceable. We learned the lessons of the pre-war period, especially the folly of appeasement, and led the formation of alliances to prevent a repeat performance. NATO has always had an American commander. Even 65 years after the Nazi surrender, we are still the key nation in the alliance.
We rebuilt Europe, and led an enlightened occupation of Japan. We resisted Communist aggression in Korea, which is why there is a thriving South Korea today. We have been Israel's greatest supporter, a policy the American people have repeatedly endorsed. And we led the alliances that won the Cold War without a world war. Not bad at all.
Mr. Obama, however, believes that the record is not that glowing. He has traveled to foreign countries and, far from extolling the good we have done, has often apologized for America's shortcomings. By extension, Obama is also apologizing for his predecessors and their policies. But, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York used to say, "This country might not be perfect, but go find one that is better." Will the apologies go on, or will they stop?
2. Our attitude toward our allies. Imagine being a young American at the end of World War II and hearing this prophecy: Someday an American president will send a bust of Winston Churchill back to Britain, in a perceived snub to our closest ally. Would you have believed this? Or imagine being a young American visiting Jerusalem in 1948, and being told: Someday an American president will humiliate an Israeli prime minister within the White House, only months after that president genuflects before a Saudi king. Would you have believed that?
Since Obama's inauguration, however, both events have taken place.
No recent American president has shown the aloofness toward America's traditional allies that Barack Obama has shown. His administration began by his very publicly sending back to Britain that bust of Winston Churchill, which had rested in a place of honor in George W. Bush's Oval Office. He then gave short shrift to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown while Brown was visiting Washington, not even holding the traditional joint press conference routinely granted to allied leaders. Mr. Obama humiliated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, declining to appear with him publicly, an obvious and humiliating snub. And he pulled the rug out from under Poland and the Czech Republic, two of our staunchest East European friends, by canceling the anti-missile system they had agreed to install. By making that agreement, they had risked their relations with Russia to grow closer to us.
To his supporters, the president's attitude might simply reflect a recognition that the world is changing, and that we must now focus more on emerging nations. To his detractors, Mr. Obama does not understand, or respect, the importance of those traditional allies who have almost always stood by our side.
3. Our attitude toward our enemies. There was never any doubt, when George W. Bush was in the White House, who we were fighting in the war on terror. It was Islamic extremism. Now, this war has no name. The administration simply tells us we are fighting extremism, but the source of that extremism is kept intentionally vague. When an Army major devoted to Islamic fundamentalism committed a mass murder at Fort Hood, Texas, his ideological background barely made it into some news reports; and the president still refuses to mention the religious hatred that appears to have motivated the major's act. Mr. Obama's allies believe he is simply being smart, trying to avoid antagonizing the entire Muslim world over the acts of a few. Mr. Obama's detractors say that the president is naïve at best, neither understanding nor addressing the nature of the ideology that faces us.
4. Our view of human rights. Most Americans probably realize that our record in advancing democracy is not perfect. Often, for practical reasons, we have been less than resolute in putting pressure on dictatorships to reform, especially if the dictators were allies.
However, one would think that Barack Obama, considering his background, would have put human rights at the center of his international agenda, but he has often seemed reluctant to encourage and promote American ideas of freedom. Many Americans were baffled, and even angered, last year when it took four days for the president to denounce the slaughter in the streets of Tehran, when freedom demonstrators took on the Iranian mullahs' regime. And we have yet to see any administration backbone in dealing with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan election only days ago, in which Chavez lost parliamentary seats, did more to advance freedom in that country than anything the American administration has done.
The president regularly reaches out to the Muslim world with offers of friendship that seem the cornerstone of his foreign policy, yet there is hardly a word about the state of democracy and human rights for the people of Muslim countries. Even the stoning of women has not moved Mr. Obama to public outrage.
Supporters claim that the president is simply being a true internationalist, working quietly behind the scenes instead of engaging in loud and fruitless denunciations of practices Americans do not like. Opponents, however, say that the president fails to grasp the importance of a decidedly American approach to the world -- an approach combining military firmness with diplomacy --
that, Obama detractors say, won the cold war. One British journalist wrote that Americans would prefer a more "star-spangled" foreign policy – one with a bit of pride in American ideals, one that rejects the more timid approach favored by traditional Europe.
5. Our view of our own country. Mr. Obama was once asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, the idea that America's values are unique among nations. He said that he believed in American exceptionalism in the same way that people of other nations believe in their own exceptionalism.
But American exceptionalism is central to America's view of itself. The president might have said that, of course he believed in American exceptionalism. He might have asked, "In what other white-majority country could a Barack Obama be possible?" But the president did not. Further, in a recent speech to a Hispanic group, Mr. Obama cited the "all men are created equal" phrase of the Declaration of Independence, but left out "endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights..," which lies at the heart of American exceptionalism – the notion that freedom comes not from the government, but from a higher authority.
Supporters say that Mr. Obama is simply showing respect for the feelings of other nations. Opponents say that he was elected president of the United States, not president of the world, that he should be more of an American president.
6. The will to win. The word "victory" has been effectively purged from the official vocabulary of the United States. We are involved in two conflicts directly, Iraq and Afghanistan; and a third over the long run – the war against sophisticated forms of global terror, with the probability of terror groups acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Yet Mr. Obama prefers not to speak of victory. Bob Woodward, in his new book, "Obama's Wars," describes a president who feels uncomfortable with military matters and focuses more on exit strategies than a vision of strength. The president was even quoted as saying that America could absorb another 9-11-sized attack. It was remark that suggested preemptive defeat.
Historically, Americans have admired those who play to win on behalf of a noble cause: the American ideal of victory is what guided Ronald Reagan in his final confrontation with a dying Soviet Union.
Mr. Obama appears to believe that victory is an outmoded concept, appealing more to emotion than to reason. The president's detractors, though, feel victory is just as important now as it has been in any other struggle.
Finally, there is the overall question: Will the strategies and ideals that led this country to sole superpower status since World War II be continued, or will we fade into being "just another country" – which, his opponents charge, is Mr. Obama's vision of the future.
That is the decision the voters must make.