The Diffidence Doctrine
President Obama’s neo-isolationist foreign policy

(Roman Genn)


In other parts of the world, the Obama administration is outsourcing formerly American responsibilities to U.S. allies. One reason that North Korea may be so boldly threatening to send missiles into South Korea and Japan is a growing sense that America’s defense umbrella is not so reliable anymore. The southeastern Mediterranean — a cauldron of disputes — is all but devoid of U.S. leadership.

The Obama administration sounds diffident about the 70-year post-war order that the United States created and preserved. Vice President Joe Biden has talked of formulating a “new world order” to replace the one that gave the world unprecedented peace and prosperity. Conservatives have jumped on the president’s trivial gestures — the “apology tour,” the bows to foreign authoritarians and monarchs. In isolation, these would be irrelevant, but they reflect an underlying policy of multipolarity and multilateralism.

Obama’s apparent neutrality in the matter of the “Malvinas,” his initial pressure on Israel about the settlements, his courting of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman Turkey, his seeking of the permission of the Arab League and the United Nations (but not the U.S. Congress) to intervene in Libya — all send signals that there is no privilege to be derived from being a supporter of America or its values.

Two recent developments — defense cuts through sequestration and the increased use of drones — fit the Obama blueprint and are becoming cornerstones of American foreign policy. The Obama administration was not terribly disappointed by sequestration’s scheduled $500 billion in across-the-board defense cuts over the next decade. Indeed, it had already proposed hundreds of billions of dollars of reductions on its own. Sequestration offered the best of both worlds: An ideological reluctance to act abroad could now be cloaked by the congressional imposition of overdue fiscal prudence.

And Obama, in one term, may have expanded targeted assassinations by drones tenfold over the tally of the eight-year Bush presidency. As judge, jury, and executioner, Obama has, in drones, a politically popular substitute for the deployment of U.S. ground troops. Drones avoid the messy circumstances and legal controversies involved in capturing terrorist suspects and bringing them for interrogation to Guantanamo. In cynical fashion, the administration assumes that prior liberal criticism of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism policy was largely partisan — given that Obama, with silent acquiescence from his base, embraced and expanded almost all of the protocols he inherited and once derided. In sum, the administration rightly assumes that the American public wants the War on Terror continued, but out of mind and out of sight. Vastly expanding the kill list — in rare circumstances to include renegade U.S. citizens — will hardly bother most Americans, and not bother at all the former liberal critics of George W. Bush.

The U.S. remains the world’s preeminent economic and military power — a fact that will not change in just the eight years of the Obama administration. If Obama at times expects foreign nations to listen to his sermonizing, such confidence is based on the reality that both he and his audience understand the historic power that he inherited. Even a neo-isolationist America will, for now, remain the indispensable world power.

Still, where does all this diffidence abroad eventually lead? The Obama administration has adroitly fashioned a policy that reflects the mood of a war-weary public that prefers its borrowed money to be spent on entitlements. Likewise, in the 1930s, our isolationist grandfathers were still demoralized by the costs and ambivalent results of World War I and traumatized by a long depression — and thus in no mood to anticipate foreign threats.

The problem, then and now, with American retrenchment is not just that others — all less ethical and legal-minded — will eventually police the world, but that inevitably they will want to police us as well.

May 6, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 8

Special Defense Section
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Jay Nordlinger reviews Roger Ailes: Off Camera, by Zev Chafets.
  • Richard Brookhiser reviews The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village, by John Strausbaugh.
  • Abigail Thernstrom reviews Intellectuals and Race, by Thomas Sowell.
  • Robert VerBruggen reviews Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, by Neil Gross.
  • John Daniel Davidson reviews Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn From the Strange Genius of Texas, by Erica Grieder.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder.
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