Not Overlearning

I strongly suspect that Ruth Marcus is misreading President Obama’s misreading of history:

On foreign policy, the signal episode of Obama’s overlearning the lessons of history is . . . pretty much the entirety of his foreign policy. It has been a reaction, understandable enough, to the adventurism of George W. Bush, primarily the ill-advised, ill-fated venture in Iraq.

Bush promised humility yet overreached; Obama vowed realism and yet underplayed the United States’ essential hand in world affairs. Hence the administration’s reluctance to intervene in Libya, the costly dillydallying over whether and how to help the rebels in Syria, the failure to push hard enough for a status of forces agreement that would have allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraq.

The administration’s instinct to retreat and ignore festering problems has helped contribute to the cataclysmic result now playing out in Iraq. Yes, the original, far graver, sin was the decision to invade. The responsibility of the incumbent president is to deal with the mistakes he inherits.

I don’t think that the president has “overlearned” anything. He’s a specialist. I think his interest is limited to political history.

However important political history is, there is other history and I don’t think that President Obama believes that its lessons apply to him.

10 comments… add one
  • CStanley

    Hmm, Marcus’ piece has a ring of truth to it though. Maybe you are both correct, because of the interplay between politics and foreign policy. If you govern by making all decisions according to politics, isn’t it inevitable that the political forces swing in a pendulum arc?

  • TastyBits

    President Obama, like other elites, believes that the 21st century is post-history. The lessons of history do not apply anymore. This is an affection for many in both political parties.

    Somehow, zero’s and one’s have caused humans to evolve, and the previous 10,000 years of human history can be thrown out the window. Apparently, there’s an app for that.

  • Guarneri

    A fatalist attitude that the mistakes of the past create unmanageable or overly icky (that’s a technical term) situations in the future is a philosophy for staffers and academics, not executives.

  • michael reynolds

    I think Marcus and you are both wrong, Dave. What was “disastrous” about Obama;s handling of Syria? Did the East Coast blow up and no one told me? We tried a bluff, it didn’t work, so we salvaged a chemical weapons drawdown.

    Are we supposed to assume that US intervention would have made things all better? American weapons wouldn’t have fallen into terrorist hands? There wouldn’t have been internecine warfare among the rebels if only we’d brought our special Middle East Magic to bear?

    Obama did the right thing on Syria. He got the right answer, which is what he’s supposed to do. He is not required to satisfy the policy wonks who so badly want a nice piece of paper with bullet points detailing the static approach we’ll take to highly uncertain conditions.

    Marcus is wrong, so are you, and Obama did the right thing: he stayed out. And it appears he’s doing the right thing now: staying out, while perhaps leveraging the crisis for a little cuddle-up with the Ayatollahs. He also did the right thing on OBL, and the right thing on Ukraine.

    So, sorry if he hasn’t laid out a pointless theoretical framework to entertain the policy nerds, I don’t care. I care about the decisions and the actions (or inactions.) Are we in any new wars? No? Then that’s good. Are we in greater danger? No? Then that’s good. Are we on good terms with our allies? Yes? Okay, then. Has some new enemy arisen to frighten us? No? Then, we’re good. Obama’s focused on what matters, and on what we can actually do.

  • You’re setting up a false dichotomy, Michael—either completely solve every problem in the Middle East or do nothing. You’re also using an inadequate metric:

    Did the East Coast blow up and no one told me?

    Using that metric and without reference to any other, can you justify the saber-rattling that the president did before he “salvaged a chemical weapons drawdown”? I don’t believe you can and if you can’t your remark is self-contradicting. “Self-contradicting” may not be the perfect word.

    My sole complaint about the president’s policy is directly related to that saber-rattling. Unlike Ms. Marcus who I presume wanted a more vigorous intervention, I think that the saber-rattling and associated fan dance with respect to the rebels resulted in more Syrians being killed and the region being more destabilized than would otherwise be the case. Sometimes not only doing nothing but not making a lot of noise about it while you’re at it is the right thing to do.

    Unlike your apparent position I think that more Syrian dead and less stability are actually against our interest and risky.

  • steve

    “I think that the saber-rattling and associated fan dance with respect to the rebels resulted in more Syrians being killed and the region being more destabilized than would otherwise be the case.”

    I know you believe that but it makes no sense. We rattled specifically over chemical weapons. We got our way. They kept fighting like they were going to do anyway. Are you making the case that if Assad had kept his chem weapons and we ignored his using them, it would be over by now?


  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    Egypt is back to where it started. Libya is a pile of shit. Syria has given up a bottle of bleach and two cans of Comet. Now you are dancing a jig over Ukraine and Iran. How do you do it wearing the floppy shoes?

    Our bastard in Egypt – gone.
    Our rat in Libya – dead.
    Syria – red lines, pink lines, purple lines, ???

    I am sure President Obama is going to outfox the Iranian Mullahs like he outfoxed Putin and Assad. I am sure they are impressed with his spider-man pull-ups. Honestly, this is getting too easy.

  • ...

    Steve, given that the president stated that if Assad used chemical weapons we would remove him and his regime, and then Assad did so (allegedly) and we didn’t, I don’t see how he got what he wanted. Unless you are saying he wanted something other than what he stated, in which case I guess he will always succeed.

  • We got our way.

    Did we? And how do you know?

    Are you making the case that if Assad had kept his chem weapons and we ignored his using them, it would be over by now?

    Are you making the argument that using chemical weapons was irrelevant to the number of people being killed? Basically, I’m saying that what we say and do aren’t completely disassociated from world events. They’re not perfectly causative but they do matter.

  • steve

    Bah, you are being vague. Chlorine doesnt kill like mustard gas and Sarin. You dont smell mustard gas and it takes small amounts. It hangs around for a long time. It takes very large amounts of chlorine and you can tell when it is being used. Sarin is much more toxic, though also short lived. We cannot stop anyone from using chlorine, but since it does not have the risks of the true chemical agents (remember that they started with Chlorine but moved on to the other agents since they work better), I think we accept that.

    So back to my original question, I think that they are having a civil war. They dont really care that much what we think, and will continue to kill each other.

    Ice- He didnt want Assad using chemical weapons. Assad is not using chemical weapons. What more do you want.


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