President Obama’s Foreign Policy

March 12, 2016

On Friday, March 11, I read a “can’t put it down” 20,000-word article by Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic: The Obama Doctrine. Mr. Goldberg, a fine writer who focuses on the Middle East, got four substantial interviews with the president in the past few months, on top of many prior conversations.

The piece is a tour de force. And anyone who reads it within the context of the foreign policy debates in the 2016 presidential campaigns—or, for that matter, taking into consideration how the candidates focus on domestic issues—will rue February 27, 1951, the day on which the Minnesota State Legislature ratified the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, barring the election of a president for a third full term.

Here, for me, is the key paragraph:

… I came to see Obama as a president who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events, even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements—controversial, provisional achievements, to be sure, but achievements nonetheless: the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate-change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal. These he accomplished despite his growing sense that larger forces—the riptide of tribal feeling in a world that should have already shed its atavism; the resilience of small men who rule large countries in ways contrary to their own best interests; the persistence of fear as a governing human emotion—frequently conspire against the best of America’s intentions. But he also has come to learn … that very little is accomplished in international affairs without U.S. leadership.

So how do you live in a world where you are necessary, but not sufficient? Modestly and carefully! President Obama has a guiding principle, focusing on existential threats to the United States. ISIS? No. Climate change? Yes, and not simply on account of its first order risks.

As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face. If you start seeing more severe drought; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse.

The president also focuses on what the United States can do. Thus, on the Middle East (paraphrasing Mr. Goldberg):

  • It’s not terribly important to American interests anymore;
  • Even if it was, there’s not all that much we can do there to make it better;
  • Our desire to fix things in the Middle East “inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power”; and
  • “the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power.”

Finally, President Obama keeps his focus on direct threats to the United States. Thus, he has avoided wars in Syria and Ukraine, and let others take the lead in Libya. And what about those who claim we need to fight a war here or there to prove ourselves? That we need to show up to stop Russian expansionism? Here’s President Obama:

Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument. I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.

President Obama then explains why President Putin has dealt with Ukraine and Syria as he has—they’re client-states which were slipping away from Russian control—and that Russia is not more powerful than it was beforehand. Ultimately, he believes, Ukraine matters more to Russia than it can or should to the United States.

Right now what passes for smart in the Republican Party are Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have never seen a challenging situation which does not merit “troops on the ground.” Downhill from there are Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). And among the Democrats, Senator Bernie Sanders (S-Vt.) seems to be running for Domestic Commander-in-Chief Only, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will give us the establishment brand of foreign policy: contra Obama, with less bluster than Trump or Cruz.

I have mostly reread Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece again. I keep coming back to child-rearing. There’s the “because I said so” school, and Boy Howdy are there challenges later on, when the kids grow up. Many still adhere to “because I said so” as an operative approach to foreign relations for the United States. Alas, the children other nations have grown up. It’s a more balanced world, and while the parent United States is still really important, it cannot dictate by fiat as it once did.

President Obama has done lots of heavy lifting here, to redirect fundamental notions about how we get along in the world. Sadly, eight years is not very long, and it’s hard to believe any successor will even understand his thoughtful approach to foreign policy, to say nothing of having the discipline to stick with it when all around him or her will be those who are screaming for blood and a show of testosterone.

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