Ryan Lizza on the Obama Foreign Policy

by Reihan Salam

Foreign policy is not the central preoccupation of this blog, but Ryan Lizza’s exhaustive account of President Obama’s approach to U.S. interests in the Middle East and around the world is worth a look. It does not inspire great confidence:

One of [Obama's] advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

One of the reasons I strongly advocate fiscal consolidation and public sector reform is that I believe it will help give the United States room to maneuver as the global political environment shifts. So in a sense I think that the flawed Obama foreign policy derives from the flawed Obama domestic policy. 

The two unspoken beliefs strike me as incomplete: yes, the relative power of the U.S. might be declining, but there is good reason to believe that China’s rise will be arrested by economic turmoil and a rapidly shrinking demographic dividend. If we instead lose ground relative to, say, impoverished India or Turkey or Brazil, all powers with interests broadly compatible with our own and a traditional focus on their respective backyards, I’m hard-pressed to see why “leading from behind” would be the right strategy. Reconfiguring our alliances, definitely. Deferring to and sharing burdens with rising democratic powers, definitely. Retrenching from some of our commitments, quite possibly. But “leading from behind” because we are reviled? 

Charitably, I assume the adviser in question was referring to the fact that the U.S. is not well-liked among young North Africans, and that is a true enough. What is also true is that the John Wayne caricature has hardly ever been a good description of the U.S. role in the world, with the arguable exception of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. And of course the second Bush term represented a pretty marked departure from the first, for better or for worse.  

On one level, Lizza’s article makes me think that conservatives should back a presidential candidate with unimpeachable foreign policy credentials. It’s not clear that there is such a non-fringe candidate, however, and so we’re left with the hope that good domestic policy instincts will translate into good foreign policy instincts.