After years of “leading from behind,” and often not leading at all, President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is finally proving transformational. It’s not a pretty sight. In the most crucial regions, allies fear that they will have to fend for themselves. Russia is growing more aggressive and China more assertive. Tyranny and narcoterrorism grow unchallenged in Latin America. And militant Islam is in the ascendant across half the world as the Middle East spirals deeper into chaos and Iran reaches the cusp of nuclear weapons.
Many critics of Obama can’t seem to decide whether he is actually malevolent toward America or just “a floundering naïf who thinks ATMs aggravate unemployment,” as George Will put it. But Obama clearly thinks of himself as a profound strategic thinker acting in America’s best interests. So what is his strategy?
Historian Colin Dueck takes a sober and analytical approach. He begins with a taxonomy of the major “types” of U.S. grand strategy: retrenchment of national commitments; containment or rollback of adversaries; accommodation through concessions; offshore balancing of regional powers from afar; and strict non-intervention. Noting that American foreign policy is usually a hybrid of these types, Dueck locates Obama’s grand strategy in a mixture of retrenchment and accommodation.
Through retrenchment of international commitments, Obama seeks to husband resources for his progressive domestic agenda of “nation-building here at home.” But this emphasis, argues Dueck, is reinforced by Obama’s sincere belief that the United States should be more accommodating toward potential adversaries. “At heart . . . Obama does not really believe that conflict is the essence of world politics” as do realists in the tradition of Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger. He seems to believe that tyrants are not intrinsically dangerous, but that an overbearing America sometimes makes them so. “Through accommodation, these potential rivals can be turned, if not into friends, then at least into something other than adversaries.”
Under Obama’s foreign retreats and vertiginous defense cuts, U.S. foreign policy has fallen into the familiar trap of letting international commitments far exceed the assets available to back them up. That was precisely the mistake that Walter Lippmann blamed for both world wars, and John Lewis Gaddis blamed the Korean and Vietnam wars on more or less the same strategy.
But Obama has also manfully limited the commitments themselves. Just two months into office, he announced a major surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and at the same time promised that the U.S. would retreat by a date certain, thereby revealing that he was ambivalent about victory. A similar complacency has marked his commitments of American power in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and even the Iran situation, on which he has staked his foreign-policy legacy.
In all these moves, writes Dueck, Obama has shown a much keener political sensibility than is commonly appreciated. He has managed somehow to channel both America’s desire to hunt down al-Qaeda after 9/11 and its anti-interventionist mood swing after the trauma of the Iraq War. With limited commitments of force, such as drone strikes and the daring operation to kill Osama bin Laden, Obama was able to satisfy or at least mollify the hawks. Meanwhile, by generally withdrawing from major commitments abroad, Obama shored up his liberal base. He went into the 2012 election with higher approval ratings on foreign policy than on the economy.
The apparent success of the “Obama doctrine” lasted just long enough to see him through reelection. Not long after, the chickens started coming home to roost. “If the goal of U.S. accommodation and retrenchment was to strengthen America’s position abroad and encourage potential adversaries to accommodate the United States,” writes Dueck, “then it has to be said the strategy did not work.” By the time Obama backtracked on Syria in 2013, “the overpowering impression was simply one of weak, confused leadership.” Great-power competitors such as Russia and China have jumped at the apparent opportunity. Terrorist safe havens have proliferated and congealed from Pakistan to Libya. Whole regions of the world are sliding into chaos. Dueck’s case-by-case narrative of these failures makes for harrowing reading.
Dueck tries his academic best to give Obama a fair assessment, noting that Obama is highly intelligent and analytical. If “U.S. policies are incoherent today,” he concludes, “it is largely because the president sees no compelling reason for them to be otherwise.” Despite the mounting evidence of failure, Obama “continues to view himself as highly pragmatic, careful, and internationally effective.” But, adds Dueck, “this is not prudence — it is a profound complacency.”
Obama’s most pronounced trait as a foreign-policy thinker may indeed be complacency. In early 2014, in response to a question about ISIS advances on Fallujah in Iraq, Obama professorially asserted that not every foreign disaster “is a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.” Fallujah, mind you, is where we not only won the greatest battle of the Iraq War, at enormous human cost, but also managed in the process to win over virtually the entire population of Anbar Province.
By the time Obama got into office, the Sunnis of western Iraq were hopelessly dependent on U.S. protection. Obama left them defenseless. And when they predictably got caught in a murderous crossfire between Iranian-backed militias and ISIS, he basically decided it wasn’t worth bothering over. Obama’s handling of Iraq has been one of the most shameful derelictions of duty in the history of American foreign policy.
What’s the alternative? Dueck is particularly helpful in connecting the dots between America’s foreign policy and its domestic politics. Among Republicans, Dueck notes, there are historically three major foreign-policy tendencies: anti-interventionism, nationalism, and internationalism.
The anti-interventionist sentiment has its roots in the isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s, and is based on the idea that what happens beyond our borders is generally none of our business. It has seen a resurgence lately because both George W. Bush and Obama succeeded in discrediting internationalism in many Republicans’ minds. But the isolationist plank has been an automatic disqualifier in every election since World War II, and although that may be less true today, the stance is not likely to be advantageous, argues Dueck.
Conservative nationalists, on the other hand, are instinctively committed to defending a strategic perimeter of traditional alliances, but are otherwise wary of foreign entanglements. Their support is concentrated in the South, and among rural voters, working-class folk, and the Tea Party. They believe Obama to be weak on national security but are more intently focused on opposing his domestic agenda. “They cherish the preservation of America’s national sovereignty as a primary goal in itself,” writes Dueck, a deft observation that helps explain the nationalists’ focus on defending the Constitution and Second Amendment rights. This group, writes Dueck, is crucial because it forms “a critical plurality, pivot point, and median on foreign-policy issues” among Republicans.
The third major Republican tendency is conservative internationalism, whose adherents believe that “American military power undergirds a stable international order”:
Conservative internationalists, past and present, support military along with diplomatic and economic instruments of U.S. foreign-policy activism. They favor clear American leadership internationally [and] support a forward U.S. strategic presence overseas. . . . Conservative internationalists believe U.S. interests abroad to be extensive, and perceive multiple threats to those interests.
Conservative internationalists differ from liberal internationalists in emphasizing ad hoc cooperation among sovereign democracies over resort to the United Nations (hence Rumsfeld’s “coalitions of the willing” in various contexts); strong defense over arms control; and diplomacy backed by military leverage over purposefully non-confrontational dialogue.
Dueck thinks that the supposed discrediting of “neoconservatives” is overhyped and obscures “the true reasons for the underlying strength of a distinctly Republican internationalism over repeated generations since World War II.” Virtually every GOP presidential nominee since 1952 has been a conservative internationalist, as is virtually every potential 2016 nominee today, with the exception of Rand Paul.
Even in this golden age of libertarian isolationism, solid majorities among both Republicans and tea-party supporters favor a strong defense, as well as the use of force to end state-sponsored terrorism, stop genocide, and prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. More than two-thirds of Republicans say they would support U.S. airstrikes to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Dueck advocates a synthesis of conservative-nationalist and conservative-internationalist tendencies, which he styles “conservative American realism.” It combines Walter Lippmann’s focus on the defense of strategic perimeters beyond our borders (the nationalist tendency), George F. Kennan’s strategy of containment (the internationalist tendency), and a recognition that the capacity of our friends and allies to govern is often our first line of defense (the realism of the neoconservative position).
Obama came to office believing that he could be a transformational president. He has certainly proved that much, and has thereby made a compelling case for the policies that he committed his presidency to reversing. The pendulum always swings back, writes Dueck. “The only question is when.”