As Scott Walker appears to be preparing a bid for the 2016 Republican nomination, he has been suggesting that his time spent as governor of Wisconsin demonstrates some leadership qualities that would be useful in a commander-in-chief. Critics reply that Walker’s gubernatorial experience is irrelevant to the presidency. President Obama himself has chimed in, saying that Walker needs to “bone up” on foreign policy.
But Walker has a point. Here’s why.
Obviously, any plausible candidate for president needs to familiarize himself with a broad range of international issues. And that is exactly what Walker has been doing over the past few months. But while issue familiarity is necessary, it is not sufficient. Other indispensable qualities include a right sense of current international challenges and a demonstrated readiness to exercise strong leadership. And here, Obama is in no position to criticize the Republican governor.
President Obama has now spent more than six years retrenching American power overseas, trying to accommodate multiple international adversaries, and focusing above all on the achievement of a sweeping domestic liberal legacy. It hasn’t worked. The main result has been an even more bloated and dysfunctional welfare state, combined with an expansion of international security challenges for the United States. Russia, China, Iran, al-Qaeda affiliates, and the Islamic State have all advanced in dramatic ways against American allies. Far from questioning his own foreign-policy premises, however, Obama seems annoyed by any suggestion that something might be wrong with them.
Because many liberal commentators assume good faith on the part of liberal leaders, and bad faith on the part of conservative ones, a liberal president doesn’t need to be skillful, effective, or even competent in order to win some liberal appreciation. All he really needs to do is show liberal intentions. And Obama has always been very good at that. As he himself admitted, this trait secured him a Nobel Peace Prize before he had actually accomplished anything overseas.
The reverse is true for conservatives. Even demonstrably effective conservative foreign-policy leaders, such as Ronald Reagan, must first sustain the most withering criticism, right up to comparison with Adolf Hitler, before earning any credit from the Left — usually, after they have passed on into the afterlife.
Scott Walker, for his part, has made the following points about Obama’s foreign policy:
• Obama is a weak commander-in-chief. He sermonizes without following through, holds the wrong priorities, and typically makes no more than half-hearted efforts toward any particular commitment internationally. The world notices.
• As a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, facing enemies who literally call for its destruction, Israel should be supported, not micromanaged.
• Current U.S. strategy against the Islamic State is seriously inadequate. The president should grasp the nature of the threat, and do what is necessary to roll back this savage enemy — for example, by allowing U.S. Special Operations Forces to call in airstrikes against it.
• Iran is looking to take advantage of the current administration’s desperation for an arms-control agreement; there is a real danger that the negotiations will result in lifting international sanctions and locking in a nascent Iranian nuclear-weapons program.
• Vladimir Putin is pushing against a half-open door to expand Moscow’s sphere of influence in neighboring countries, with inadequate resistance from the West, notably the United States.
• Peace in the Asia–Pacific region would be best served by firm U.S. support for allies such as Japan, not by confused or mixed messages regarding such allies.
• Defense cuts in recent years will have to be reversed in order to bolster America’s faltering deterrent posture.
If Walker’s liberal critics disagree with any of the above sentences, I’d like to hear them explain exactly why. In fact, many former (and even current) defense and foreign-policy officials from the Obama administration have at least hinted their agreement with every single one of the assertions listed above. Sometimes they have more than hinted. But because Walker is a conservative Republican, when he voices such concerns, the media frequently take it as evidence of a lack of feeling for current foreign-policy challenges. It is precisely the opposite. What Walker is expressing is the mainstream conservative sensibility right now regarding Obama’s foreign-policy approach. And that sensibility happens to be very well grounded in reality. There truly are multiple international security threats germinating right now against American interests, and in some ways Obama’s policies have made them worse. But because admitting this would violate numerous deeply held liberal assumptions regarding international affairs — not to mention give comfort to Republicans — you won’t hear many liberals say so.
As a practical matter, if a president does not impose some sort of coherent order on foreign-policy priorities, nobody else can or will.
Obama isn’t doing any better on the issue of leadership. In this country, the foreign-policy decision-making system centers on the president. To be sure, Congress has a vital constitutional role to play. But the American political system gives commanders-in-chief leeway to shape and define foreign-policy choices, interests, and decisions. As a practical matter, if a president does not impose some sort of coherent order on foreign-policy priorities, nobody else can or will. This means that the assumptions, personality, and decision-making style of a chief executive really do make a tremendous difference.
In Obama’s case, a striking pattern has been not only mistaken foreign-policy assumptions, but a leadership style unsuited to making, implementing, and following through on difficult decisions. Obama’s instinctive manner — first honed during his time at the Harvard Law Review, as a community organizer, and as a university law-school instructor — is to lecture various parties on why their apparent differences are not as great as they imagine, and how they can be transcended if only the people concerned have the courage and the intelligence to listen to him. This may have worked during his early career within narrowly liberal circles. It does not work for a president, it does not work in international politics, and it certainly does not work for a commander-in-chief.
Scott Walker’s leadership style during his time as governor is an interesting contrast to Obama’s. When Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin, there was a gaping state budget deficit. He decided, quite rightly, that the only way to address this challenge was to face down the public-sector unions. To say this was a controversial decision would be an understatement. It rallied nationwide resistance against Walker from organized labor and liberal Democrats, including a 2012 recall election. Yet in spite of the most outrageous attacks, he stuck to his guns. The outcome was that he won the recall election, brought Wisconsin’s budget under control, and then won reelection in 2014. These dramatically successful struggles may not have been about foreign policy, but they do reveal qualities of leadership that are entirely relevant to being president, and that Obama has never demonstrated. These leadership qualities include:
• Do what you say you’re going to do. For some reason, this is viewed as exceptional in Washington, D.C. In the country’s heartland, it is simply expected.
• If you draw a red line, enforce it. If you don’t intend to enforce it, don’t draw it in the first place.
• Actually work to solve problems. Do not simply give speeches and then walk away.
• Don’t lead from behind. Just lead. If and when you achieve results, people in the middle will recognize and reward your success.
• Understand that the practical test of an effective policy is not whether it fits the good intentions of liberals, but whether it works on the ground.
In his own Midwestern way, tough but low-key, Walker has demonstrated all of the above traits during his years as governor. Obama, on the other hand, has now had years of foreign-policy briefings from a tremendous variety of experts, but has never demonstrated these same essential qualities. It’s not for lack of information. It’s because he simply does not possess some of the key leadership attributes necessary to be an effective foreign-policy president. Combine this with his myopic defense of liberal assumptions regarding international affairs, and you have a recipe for disaster.
All of which is to say: When it comes to foreign-policy leadership, maybe it’s the president who needs to bone up.
— Colin Dueck is an associate professor in the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University, and the author of The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (Oxford University Press, 2015).