Second Term Foreign Policy

There has been considerable criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy lately both from foes and erstwhile allies. For example, Rich Lowry declaims:

What we have been witnessing the past few weeks, in real time, is the intellectual collapse of Obama’s foreign policy, accompanied by its rapid political unraveling. When Al Franken is ripping you for lacking a strategy against ISIL in Syria, you have a problem.

Obama’s view was that Al Qaeda was holed up in the badlands of Pakistan and you could drone it into submission. Then, if you stopped stirring up hornets’ nests in the Middle East, and demonstrated your good intentions, and pulled entirely out of Iraq and stayed out of Syria, you could focus on “nation building at home” and not worry about places like Mosul and Aleppo.

This, in a nutshell, was the theory of the “don’t do stupid stuff” doctrine.

Every particular was wrong.

while Jonathan Alter remarks:

Presidents must act at least as much as they react; they must seize the initiative and thrust their enemies on the defensive. Sometimes threatening war is the only way to keep the peace. Obama knows this abstractly, but it’s at odds with his interpretation of history and his assessment of the mission of his presidency, which is to end wars, not start them.

To put it in terms of compelling historical metaphor, Obama is a “Guns of August” guy. The book of that title, by Barbara Tuchman, chronicles how bluster and a series of miscalculations led European powers to blunder into World War I exactly a century ago.

Not to enter the “it’s all Bush’s fault” camp but I think it’s helpful to reconsider those ancient days of the last administration.

I think it’s a misconception to speak or think of the “Bush foreign policy”. I think it’s better to think of the first term Bush foreign policy and the second term Bush foreign policy. The Bush foreign policies.

Rather than recapping and analyzing what those policies were in the two different terms, I’d rather zip ahead, and note that there is no Obama foreign policy but Obama foreign policies. The first term Obama foreign policy closely resembled the second term Bush foreign policy.

The president would like us to think of his second term foreign policy as “don’t do stupid sh*t” but I think it’s closer to “no boots on the ground”. That may be stupid or it may be shrewd. It’s unquestionably shrewd in political terms. The American people are not in a mood for a ground war that involves taking casualties. I don’t think they were in a mood for that in 2003 either but that’s a different subject.

That policy will necessarily limit the objectives you can reasonably accomplish.

The sad reality is that there are occasions in which a president must convince the people that doing something they don’t want to do is the right thing to do. That is one of the hardest jobs of the president and the incumbent has shown very little interest in doing it.

Are the foreign policy challenges that face us today necessitate doing things that are unpopular? I’m not convinced they are but I also think that anybody who expects this president actually to go out and sell his policies and convince the American people to support something they oppose is thinking of some other president.

22 comments… add one
  • CStanley

    Excellent post, and this bears repeating:
    That policy will necessarily limit the objectives you can reasonably accomplish.

    Not only does this limit military objectives, but diplomatic ones too. Our foreign policy is thus held hostage by domestic politics.

    I also think that anybody who expects this president actually to go out and sell his policies and convince the American people to support something they oppose is thinking of some other president.

    Anyone doubting this should revisit the debacle of ACA. If Obama couldn’t or wouldn’t bother to effectively make the case for his signature piece of legislation, how could anyone believe he’d rally Americans to a war effort?

  • ...

    “Our foreign policy is thus held hostage by our domestic politics.”

    Always and forever, here and everywhere else.

  • TastyBits

    European opinion is the only thing that may sway the president. Flinging shit on him will not change anything, but it will diminish the Office of President.

    It is possible to attack the policy and philosophy without attacking the man and unintentionally the office. If you can make a compelling argument that the policy and philosophy are silly and childish, you do not need to comment upon the person making the argument. Most people can take it from there.

    You know you have won when your opponent states, “you’re making me look stupid.”

  • Hello Dave,
    The American people are not in a mood for a ground war that involves taking casualties.

    The American people were in the mood for that kind of war right after 9/11. It was President Bush who threw water on that fire for reasons that had to do with ‘bidness’ , ‘allies’ and family friends and instead attacked a country that was landlocked where all supplies had to be brought through a hostile jihadist country and another country that was no imminent threat to us.

    The American people might very well be in the mood for that kind of war again if it’s presented to them honestly for a change, involves an actual declaration of war, goes after our actual enemies full force with the clearly defined goal of victory that involves eliminating Islamic fascism and its security threats to America with no BS about Islam being ‘a religion of peace’ , has no ridiculous rules of engagement to handcuff our troops, and no fatuous nation building or appeasement of Islamists involved.

    Needless to say, our dysfunctional POTUS is never going to do anything like that.

    And BTW, our chief threat in the ME isn’t Islamic State – it’s Iran. Knocking off one without taking the other off the board is exactly the mistake we made taking out Saddam Hussein, to the Ayatollah’s delight.

  • Knocking off one without taking the other off the board is exactly the mistake we made taking out Saddam Hussein, to the Ayatollah’s delight.

    I made a similar point myself a bit more than ten years ago when I was arguing against an invasion of Iraq. Invading Iraq as an opening blow in achieving much larger strategic objectives made at least a little sense. Invading Iraq as a strategic objective makes no sense at all. Imagine if we had invaded Sicily in 1943 and then attempted to set up a stable, democratic government there without pressing on.

    The problem with all of this is that it isn’t 1940, 1950, or even 1960 and Fourth Generation Warfare is the present standard. The IS is already inside our OODA cycle.

    And, of course, there is such a thing as path dependency. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since 2001.

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