There has been much head scratching over the years about the essence of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Now with another member of Obama’s cabinet, former defense secretary as well as CIA director Leon Panetta, offering up a memoir of disagreement and disenchantment, it’s clear that the consternation is no longer limited to conservative skeptics.
Is this president who was supposed to usher in a new age of U.S. policy-making actually just an isolationist who abjures international entanglements as a matter of principle? Or is he a politician too preoccupied with great domestic challenges to pay attention to all those squabbling foreigners? In fact, Obama is best understood as a throwback to the mid-1970s, equal parts George McGovern and Henry Kissinger.
Today’s debates are, after all, eerily similar to those of the mid-1970s. After a divisive and draining war in Vietnam, the Democratic party, captured by McGovern and his protégés, insisted that America had to come home, for it could only do harm abroad. This was not simply isolationism but was surely an indictment of what was considered overly aggressive interventionism.
At the same time, the Republican party under the banner of Henry Kissinger’s realism saw America as a declining power that had to accommodate rivals such as the Soviet Union and China. Democrats did not emphasize values, for they were suspicious of American power, while the Republicans avoided them, for they had no place in their balance of power diplomacy.
Fast forward to Obama’s first presidential campaign. In 2008, as the American public struggled with
the burdens of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, retrenchment was in the air. The country had its share of economic problems, as well as a need to rebuild crumbling infrastructure. The call was for self-rehabilitation, and candidate Obama captured this mood and offered it up as a seemingly coherent philosophy of governance.
The McGovern streak was obvious, as Obama and many around him held that America had to limit its horizons since too often its interventions had caused the problem in the first place. Human rights and democracy promotion had to take a backseat. A United States that had invaded Iraq on a questionable premise had no right to hector other nations about the conduct of their domestic affairs. America had to accept the fact that it was not an exceptional country but just another member of the community of nations that had made its share of mistakes.
The Middle East was the place where Obama most disengaged. For the Obama team, it was America’s wars that had deformed the politics of the region and disturbed its natural order. It was best to leave the Arab world to the Arabs themselves. As such, the White House was caught flatfooted during the Arab Spring of 2011 and had no plans for a region that was coming undone. The need to propitiate domestic critics may have propelled Obama to draw various red lines, but personal inhibitions prevented him from enforcing them.
Realism is the natural companion of this sense of retrenchment. Obama was channeling his inner Henry Kissinger when he sensed that the best means of preserving stability was to take into consideration adversarial nations’ interests. Thus came the resetting of relations with Vladimir Putin and arms control diplomacy with Ali Khamenei. America’s nemeses were supposed to cast aside their ambitions and settle their accounts with a more humble Washington.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Iran’s persistent defiance at the negotiating table are a stark reminder that dictators’ hostility to the West is intrinsic, ideologically driven, and undeterred by gestures of accommodation. It was finally a radical Sunni insurgency, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, galloping across the heart of the Middle East that compelled the president to emerge from his torpor, sort of.
If Obama sounded prescient in 2008, today he seems anachronistic and stale. The tedium of Obama’s retrenchment is proving ill-suited for a nation that has historically sought an idealistic imprint on global affairs. As Hil-lary Clinton recently argued, implicitly criticizing the president she served as secretary of state, America has to stand for something bigger than avoiding mistakes. We seem, then, to be in the process of a course correction, as Americans are once more looking abroad for missions of redemption.
As America enters the last two years of Obama’s presidency, some basic principles have to be considered.