Foreign policy in the age of Obama: First principles

obama triangle

The Swirl of Events

Barack Obama has presided for six years and change over the government of the most powerful nation on earth:  time enough for decisions and revisions, and for consequences to be manifested.

During his tenure, the Middle East has lurched into revolt, repression, and brutal conflict.  An entity calling itself the Islamic State, which endorses slavery and crucifixion, now rules a territory larger than Britain’s.  Al Qaeda is on the march in Yemen and Syria.  The Iranians, we think, are trying to build a nuclear bomb.  Vladimir Putin’s Russia, we know, has swallowed the Crimea and seeks to impose a puppet regime on Ukraine.

Events, as always, have been in the saddle.

The Obama administration has tried to navigate the tempest by applying the usual instruments of American power in what I consider to be highly unusual ways.  It isn’t too early to ask how the president and his foreign policy team have fared in the attempt.

My plan of analysis is a simple one.  First, I want to understand the principles that have guided Barack Obama’s foreign policy.  That effort will consume the entirety of this post.

I will then examine how the president’s principles of action have worked in that swirl of global events, and compare administration expectations with what, in fact, transpired.  That I hope to make the subject of future posts. 

The Repudiation of Power

The foreign policy strategy pursued by the president has puzzled some seasoned observers, and worried others.  It seems disconnected from past US aims.

In their engagement with other nations, US presidents have struggled to balance the country’s interests with its ideals.  Because presidents are also politicians, they tend to fudge over the distinction, but in truth there are big choices to be made.  If the United States is really the strongest power on earth, it should defend the status quo everywhere and treat every change as a potential threat.  However, if the US is the champion of democracy and individual rights, then many changes are in order around the world.

Circumstances and temperament determine which side of the equation is given higher priority.  Richard Nixon was a master of realpolitik, for example, but had no time for fine ideals.  On the other hand, George W. Bush committed the US to “ending tyranny around the world,” but only after realism had failed him in the awkward matter of Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction.

From the first, Barack Obama rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”  Although the statement sounds like presidential boilerplate (President Bush:  “America’s vital interests and deepest beliefs are now one”), I don’t believe that to be the case.  President Obama distrusts sharply-drawn differences – between nations, groups, ideologies – which he tends to represent in terms of false choices.  Faced with the tension between US power and American ideals, he has chosen to opt out, maintaining an unprecedented indifference toward both sides of the equation.

The pursuit of the national interest elicits a meaningful silence from the president.  The concept is simply absent from his rhetoric.  Even the word is used sparingly, and mostly in the context of how our interests coincide with those of other nations.  The reason for this neglect is never fully explained:  it must be pieced together from a patchwork of presidential utterances.

In brief, the world according to Barack Obama is a zero-sum place.  A nation can advance only at the expense of other nations.  This dark vision of our fallen nature underlies his judgment of history:  “For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes – and, yes, religions – subjugating one another in pursuit of their interests.”

The individual state, like the individual person in the Obama scheme, is naturally selfish and prone to bullying, unless constrained by a community.

The Hypocrisy of Idealism

Though he has repudiated power politics, the president has shown few signs of succumbing to foreign policy idealism.  Again and again, when presented with the opportunity, he has refused to commit the influence of the United States to the overthrow of tyrants or the promotion of democracy.  It has made no difference whether the authoritarian regime in question has been an ally, like those of Iraq and Egypt, or hostile to the US, like Iran and Syria.  In each case, the administration behaved like a detached observer, volunteering advice from afar but refraining from any action that might influence the outcome.

The one exception was Libya.  Intervention there, however, was justified in humanitarian terms, and was portrayed by the Obama administration as a rescue mission rather than taking sides in a revolt against a singularly brutal despot.  The goal was “saving lives.”  The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and the advancement of freedom, the president acknowledged, would leave the world “better off” – but he explicitly excluded both objectives from the Libya operation.

In part, such skittishness reflects Barack Obama’s ambivalence about the role America has played in the progress of freedom.  When he speaks about a favored cause like women’s rights, his rhetoric can elevate the United States into a model for the world.  Just as often, however, he will depict this country as a land of reactionary struggle and regression.  In general, whenever the president compares us to “our wealthy allies,” the point is rarely flattering to the home team.

But the rejection of idealism in foreign policy rests on a more fundamental conviction.  For President Obama, such idealism is hypocrisy – a pretext for interfering in the affairs of other countries.  The invasion of Iraq under President Bush was only the most recent example.  US promotion of democracy, in the president’s words, has aroused “much controversy” because it has been perceived, probably correctly, as self-interested.  Pious talk is thus part of power politics rather than an alternative to it.  The dichotomy is an illusion inviting a false choice.

President Obama’s indifference to foreign policy idealism separates him from earlier progressive presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson.  Yet he is even more averse to Nixonian realism.  His starting-point for action in the world isn’t love of freedom or lust for power, but an extraordinary confidence in his own ability to read the direction of the march of history.

The Importance of Smart

Barack Obama is deeply persuaded that he has cut the Gordian knot of great power politics.  This breakthrough, his rhetoric hints, has depended less on old-fashioned strategic maneuvers than on a cluster of personal attitudes and attributes, none more important than “smart.”  Hillary Clinton, his first secretary of state, called the new approach “smart power.”  The president, who is power-allergic, has preferred to speak in terms of “a smart foreign policy” and “a smarter kind of American leadership.”

To be smart means to discern how sharply the current moment has broken with the past.  President Obama is an unwavering historicist.  His rhetoric assumes that human events move in a predetermined direction, and that a select band of extra-smart minds, armed with masses of data, can shepherd the country and the world into the inevitable future, of which the president himself is a messenger and a representative.

With regard to Iran, for example, the president refused to “remain trapped in the past.”  With Cuba, “we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.”  Because of newfangled threats like foreign hackers and Ebola, “we’re looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.”  Similar statements can be found at will.  In each, President Obama speaks as the voice of tomorrow, with a unique awareness that “human progress cannot be denied.”

The mission of a smart foreign policy is to save the nations of the earth – ours included – from their own destructive history.  Under this scheme, everything old is mired in error.  Peoples and governments are irrationally shackled to the past:  their actions are driven by outmoded prejudice, not reality, and thus often end in disaster.  Among the prejudices clouding the judgment of those who are not smart, the president clearly includes the pursuit of national power and interest in an interdependent world.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that President Obama believes international conflict would cease if only the actors would open their eyes and perceive the new reality.  He preaches to the Israelis about the Palestinians:  “Sometimes the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change.”  He lectures the Arabs about Israel:  “choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.”  He himself stands neither here nor there, pro or con, but on the Platonic heights where all is revealed:  “If we come to see this conflict from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth.”

Conflict, on this account, is never a clash of interests, only a failure of intellect.  The president and his team, who are smart, thus understand the true interest of every nation.  They will represent Russian aggression in Ukraine as “not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.”  When foreign rulers like Vladimir Putin persist in playing the power game, they will be told, more in sorrow than in anger, that they have committed an egregious blunder and placed themselves “on the wrong side of history.”

This is more than a persistent rhetorical flourish.  In Barack Obama’s universe, history is always on his side, because he has outgrown the irrational impulses of more backward times and embraced the inevitability of human progress.

The Avoidance of Stupid

Since history already favors the president’s cause, a smart foreign policy needs only one operating principle:  avoid mistakes.  To dive into Barack Obama’s pronouncements is to encounter a mind preoccupied to the point of obsession with the mistakes of the past.  The “painful chapter in our history” that was Vietnam, the “overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran,” and, hovering over everything, the “dumb war” in Iraq – this administration’s prime directive for dealing with the world has been never again to indulge in such a toxic cocktail of ignorance and aggression.

When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in the military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.

Or, in the more concise foreign policy mantra of the age of Obama:  “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Certain modes of interacting with foreign governments follow naturally from a strong focus on avoiding mistakes.  Most obvious is the urge to engage with those hostile to the US to “lift suspicion and fear” – that is, wipe away the legacy of earlier errors.  To Iran, Russia, Cuba, the Arab countries, the Muslim world, the administration has extended an open hand in the hope of coaxing an unclenched fist.  “America,” proclaimed the president at the start of his first term, “is a friend to each nation.”

I will postpone for the future a full accounting of the fruits of this benevolent policy.  Suffice it to say, here, that none of the regimes being engaged with have altered their behavior in a significant way.

One way to lower the cost of mistakes in the global arena has been to delegate to other countries the initiatives promoted by the administration.  President Obama is nothing like a builder of grand coalitions in the manner of, say, George H. W. Bush.  He holds international organizations like the UN in high rhetorical esteem, but unlike the second President Bush he has never sought their approval of his policies.  Rather, on an ad hoc basis, he has endeavored to shift responsibility away from the United States to governments that have been sometimes friendly, but sometimes not.

In Iraq, for example, the administration bet on an Iranian-backed autocrat over potential chaos:  in the end, it got both.  In the Libyan conflict, the president pledged the US military to “a supporting role” to NATO after the first bombing attacks:  a White House adviser famously explained the US posture on Libya as “leading from behind.”  Again, when the Syrian regime trampled on his own “red lines” forbidding the use of chemical or biological weapons, the president seemed relieved to outsource the crisis to Syria’s patron, Russia.

My guess is that these and other cases of stage fright are a reflection of policy rather than timidity.  Leading from behind may sound like a contradiction to traditional minds, but the phrase has that gloss of nuance and cleverness so important to the president’s people.  Their concern has been to avoid mistakes at all costs, while history does the heavy lifting.  In that context, it has seemed smart to yield the spotlight to less highly-evolved governments.

The logical conclusion of this outlook, of course, is utter inaction.  The Obama administration has remained determinedly passive in the face of events that have shattered forever the old strategic landscape:  the revolts in Egypt and Syria, for example.  When it stirs itself to action, as with Libya and the Islamic State, it acts under many self-imposed limitations and qualifications – and, as noted, it prefers, when possible, to shift responsibility to other shoulders.  Even in Afghanistan, that “war of necessity,” the president hesitated for months before committing to increased military involvement, then scheduled the date of withdrawal even as he was announcing the start of an offensive.

The remarkable fact is that, for Barrack Obama and his foreign policy team, there are no mistakes of omission.  His grim vision of history is tightly focused on the consequences of selfish aggression.  His rhetoric leaves no space for references to Munich or appeasement:  that was a quirk of the World War II generation, part of the dead hand of the past.  The president remembers Vietnam and Iraq.   These teach a different lesson:  that US intervention in foreign nations degenerates inevitably into recklessness.  Inaction is thus restraint.  To stand pat is to avoid disaster and incur no blame.

Experience hasn’t altered President Obama’s thinking on this score.  Failure to intervene in the Syrian uprising, for example, left the door open for the Islamic State, which in turn caused the near-collapse of an Iraq forsaken by US forces.  I find no evidence that the president would accept any linkage among these events.

The Dream of Different

The administration’s reluctance to act, together with its rigid information-processing requirements, leave it at the mercy of the speed of events.  By the time the data has been gathered and arrayed, and the discussions held, the world has often moved on.  A smart foreign policy has turned out to be a largely reactive one.

Faced with the crisis of the Egyptian regime, the administration never worked out whether to back old ally Hosni Mubarak, the attractive street protesters, the democratically elected Islamist Mohamed Morsi, or ultimate winner Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  Each player in turn felt betrayed by the vacillations of the US government.

Intervention in the Libyan civil war was delayed until after the rebels had lost the initiative, and Qaddafi’s forces were on the verge of victory.  Though the stated aim of US and NATO participation was saving lives, its effect was to prolong the conflict for seven bloody months.

Similarly, the current bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria began only after the Islamic State had conquered large chunks of territory, and threatened the city of Baghdad.  Previously, the president had proclaimed that in Iraq “the tide of war is receding,” rejected intervention in Syria on smart-policy grounds, and dismissed the Islamic State as a “JV team” to Al Qaeda’s full varsity squad.

Administration people would no doubt argue that, at a minimum, they have avoided foreign policy catastrophes of the magnitude of President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  For this argument to be valid, however, two conditions must be met.  First, in the matter of catastrophes, sins of omission – that specialty of the Obama White House – must be shown to be harmless.  That depends on the second condition.

Barack Obama inherited a world order of which he plainly disapproved.  It may seem surprising that he has never tried to change it:  but he discerned in the depths, at the subatomic level of geopolitics, a world that was already changed.  His task, he thought, was to align the foreign policy of the United States with the elements of this irresistible transformation.  “For the world has changed,” he told us, “and we must change with it.”

The president perceives a world different in radical ways from that imagined by other heads of state.  He is smart.  They are blinded by ancient prejudice.  In his transcendent vision, power has little connection to security, and “bigger nations can’t bully the small.”  If this corresponds to reality, Barack Obama may indeed be the good shepherd leading his global flock to a peaceful new world order.  His mistakes of omission in that case have been, as he and his people insist, trivial in their consequences.

But if, as seems far more likely to me, the principles that govern today’s world are not much changed from yesterday’s, and power still matters greatly, and strongly-held ideals like nationalism still matter too, then over the last six years the president of the United States has been trapped in a naïve dream, and his policies have reflected his own fond hopes rather than reality.  This, if true, would mean that the new world order is being erected behind President Obama’s back, without US participation, consultation, or even awareness.  Our interests will form no part of the new scheme, and are likely to be at odds with it.

The probability of a catastrophe – or several – lurking behind our inaction and inattention would then be uncomfortably high.  Even now human disasters confront us in the Islamic State, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Ukraine:  there and elsewhere, a catastrophic decline in the ability of the US to influence events may be one passive moment away.

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