He’s No Jimmy Carter

by Dave Schuler on March 16, 2014

There’s one good sentence in Tom Friedman’s latest column:

It can’t be easy being Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger all at once.

Sadly, that mild wisecrack is expanded into a column that doesn’t offer much additional insight. I won’t bother fisking it.

The one thing about which I think we can be absolutely certain about in Barack Obama’s foreign policy is that he’s no Jimmy Carter. My criticism of Carter’s foreign policy at the time and which I believe has held up since is that he thought the U. S. could maintain its position in the world on the basis of moral suasion alone.

My basic criticism of the president’s foreign policy is that I believe that domestic political considerations overwhelm our actual policy interests. That’s not unique to him but I do find a difference in degree so great that it becomes a difference in kind. I think it explains everything about his foreign policy from why he campaigned on an “Afghan surge”, why we haven’t withdrawn our forces from Afghanistan long after it was obvious that we had accomplished whatever could be accomplished there with the effort we were willing to expend, his reactions to Iran, the “Arab Spring”, you name it. It’s a Unified Field Theory of Obama foreign policy.

I think it explains why he reacted as he did to the situation in Syria. Surrounded as he was by R2P (“responsibility to protect”) advocates, he initially responded quite aggressively. However, when he realized that was a miscalculation and popular reaction wasn’t what he had supposed it was, he pulled back and Russian President V. Putin gave him the figleaf he needed for a hasty retrenchment. Haven’t heard much about Syria lately, have you? Civilians are still dying there in the thousands.

With respect to the situation in Ukraine I think the president has taken the temperature of the country (this country) pretty well. We’re not interested in intervention. We don’t like it that the Russians are intervening but, honestly, in the final analysis we don’t much care.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

jan March 16, 2014 at 1:37 pm

My basic criticism of the president’s foreign policy is that I believe that domestic political considerations overwhelm our actual policy interests. That’s not unique to him but I do find a difference in degree so great that it becomes a difference in kind.

I would put it another way: I think that the current administration came into power with only domestic policy alterations in mind. The goals were to ‘transform’ and ‘change’ our basic framework of a capitalistic, individualistic, entrepreneurial society to one being more collective in nature, run by an enlarging centralized government with an omnipresence over most aspects of American life.

In fact the U.S.’s foreign policy begin back-pedaling immediately, softening and becoming self-deprecating in it’s tone, pulling back it’s military, placating foes, putting a longer arm’s length approach towards allies, foot-dragging and indecisiveness in participating with allies in joint military actions to stem terrorist aggression (Libya, Syria) and being more nonchalant in following through with important Status of Forces Agreements, dealing with long term conflicts in Iraq and now Afghanistan. It seems that ‘turning the other cheek,’ sometimes the entire back, has been the reflexive action taken in so many foreign policy gambits and problems, which is why there has been a steady stream of criticism from others saying America’s strength has ebbed, allowing a vacuum which is now being filled by the like’s of Putin.

No matter how much distaste there is for military entanglements and/or engagement, I don’t believe opting out is necessarily a long term nor viable solution for world peace. Life and aggressive behavior goes on whether or not we want to be involved. And, much like what happened in WWII, where we denied, hung back from the European conflict, it only escalated killing more people, and eventually found us, forcing us into the war anyway. IMO, what a nation permits only enlarges the scope of negative actions by others. Ignoring signs and symptoms does not deter anything, from wars, suppression of rights to cancer.

Dave Schuler March 16, 2014 at 1:40 pm

The goals were to ‘transform’ and ‘change’ our basic framework of a capitalistic, individualistic, entrepreneurial society to one being more collective in nature, run by an enlarging centralized government with an omnipresence over most aspects of American life.

I don’t believe that, either. I think the administration’s goals are much, much narrower: staying in office. I think that any other goals are so overwhelmed by that one they recede into the shadows.

That’s something that can be understood purely through the dynamics of power politics. The public employees’ unions are fundamental sponsors. They’ve got to keep them happy.

michael reynolds March 16, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Jan:

That’s the “sign of weakness” theory. So kindly explain Reagan’s ignominious retreat from Lebanon. Then explain what sign of weakness George W. Bush sent Al Qaeda that caused them to attack us. Make some sense of the “sign of weakness” theory, or admit that it’s just babble.

Dave:

First, all presidents want to be re-elected. But now Mr. Obama has been re-elected. So as a motive for current actions it’s obviously off the mark.

And I’d love to hear how his toughness with Netanyahu is somehow part of getting re-elected. He’s the first president since Eisenhower to push back against Israel. Is his outreach to Iran about votes? Is carrying the drone war to Yemen about votes? Sorry, that theory is unsupported by reality.

He got us out of Iraq, is getting us out of Afghanistan, avoided the dreaded “boots on the ground” in Libya despite all the predictions, nailed Osama Bin Laden and continues to hammer Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His attempt to bluff the Syrians failed, but he salvaged a chemical weapons draw-down. And he has finally stood up to our erstwhile puppet in Kabul. And he has thus far done all we can or should do about Ukraine.

jan March 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I think the administration’s goals are much, much narrower: staying in office.

That’s kind of pinpointing everything into just a political thimble. You may be right, though, especially regarding current reactions to revolving problems, here and abroad. However, I still think the initial agenda was transfixed on hard core ideological domestic accomplishments, having little to do with the reality or state of the economy in 2009. Otherwise, why would Obama prioritize toppling and then rearranging health care, over and above growing the broader economy, vigorously addressing job creation, and going easier on enacting more rules and regulations that only inhibit such expansion?

jan March 16, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Michael,

Presidents oftentimes do pick their battles — engaging in some and retreating in others, oftentimes depending on the circumstances and best options available at the time.

In Reagan’s case, in ’83 he retreated from Lebanon, treating it more as a wake-up call to middle eastern terrorism, than an all out mandate to go to war. However, in ’86 he did flex his muscles forcibly in Libya, after the Berlin discotheque bombing. And, then there were those memorable speeches aimed at Russia. Some say that if Reagan had gone overboard in reacting to the Beirut bombing, he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he did in dealing with Russia and the Cold War.

Under the Carter/Clinton presidencies, global terrorism evolved and grew into the cataclysmic event of 9/11, under Bush. Carter’s response to the hostage taking, though, set a weak precedent, having disastrous optics attached to it. He has also been faulted for his cutbacks in CIA activities during his term in office. Clinton did respond to incidents like the Cole, Khobar Towers bombing etc. However, under his AG, Janet Reno, there was a ban enacted regarding sharing intelligence between the CIA and domestic law enforcement — something that has come under criticism, and become tangible in some of the reasons dots were not connected more quickly in the beginnings of the rather chaotic Bush administration. Nonetheless, Bush was lackadaisical in setting up his counter terrorism task force and has openly admitted to feeling no sense of urgency about terrorism before 9/11.

However, Bush at least seemed to learn from his mistakes. I can’t say the same about our current president.

michael reynolds March 16, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Jan:

So the usual bullshit. And, then there were those memorable speeches aimed at Russia.

Yes, you people do love your macho posturing, don’t you? The right-wing solution for everything in foreign policy is: more penis.

Well, my friend, Ronald Reagan did not wake up to terrorism. He did squat about terrorism. And by your lights Al Qaeda should have seen George W. Bush’s manly strutting and backed down. Bin Laden seemed to think George HW’s manly manitude with Kuwait was reason to launch a terrorist war against the US.

So, let’s see. Macho Man Ronnie is a Manly Man because he was manly enough to run away from Lebanon before the bodies of 241 marines were even cold. Then in his Manly Man way he sent Manly Ollie North to Tehran with a cake and some weapons. Because that’s how Manly Men do it.

Then Macho George HW displayed his impressive penis by pushing Iraq out of Kuwait, a display that really taught Saddam a lesson and totally intimidated Al Qaeda. Which promptly declared war on us, leading to 9-11. Which conveniently is not the fault of our codpiece stuffing Manly Man George W. Bush. Who in his manly way failed to get Osama”dead or alive.” And then (still very manly) failed to manage the occupation of Iraq and ended up creating a gigantic fiasco we’re still paying for.

But by all means: let’s have more swaggering nincompoops.

Let me explain something to you: Americans may think the whole world is about us and our politics, but the rest of the world disagrees. Not that I expect anything from you but a regurgitation of Sean Hannity’s latest show.

jan March 16, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Michael,

You go over the top so much of the time, turning mountains into mole hills when it suits your hyperbolic rhetoric.

BTW, no one was talking about Reagan being ‘macho,’ nor any of the other hated republican presidents you were slinging your vitriol at. Also, your recounting of history is both histrionic and skewed in it’s interpretation of events.

Dave Schuler March 16, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Sure. Israel and Netanyahu aren’t synonymous. A majority of American Jews agree with the president on Israel and I suspect the percentage is even higher among American Jews who have the president’s ear.

Andy March 16, 2014 at 7:20 pm

In most cases, I think the subordination of foreign policy to domestic politics is a good thing – in other words, our foreign policy should reflect the preferences, in general terms, of the American people. Increasingly, though, foreign policy is controlled by Elites who are increasingly distant from the people they are supposed to serve. Col. Pat Lang put it well: “the elites are a closed shop determined in its membership by its group think and fancy diplomas.”

The Obama foreign policy team isn’t any different and he seems pretty deferential to them.

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