Almost three years into his administration, observers continue to debate the nature of President Obama’s overall foreign policy approach. What is the “Obama doctrine”? Some say it is a policy of international engagement. Some point to Libya, and suggest that the Obama doctrine is one of humanitarian intervention multilaterally and at minimal cost. Some look to today’s fiscal constraints and say that it is all about insolvency. Some describe the Obama doctrine as a version of traditional great power realism, coming after the crusading idealism of the Bush years. Others respond that Obama has no foreign policy strategy at all — that he is simply making it up as he goes along.
Each interpretation has a certain kernel of truth, but each is also seriously flawed and incomplete. Barack Obama does in fact have an overarching foreign policy strategy, going back several years in spite of recent upheavals, but its basic organizing principle is neither engagement, nor intervention, nor insolvency, nor realism per se. The centerpiece of Obama’s overall foreign policy strategy is the concept of accommodation. Specifically, the president believes that international rivalries can be accommodated by American example and by his own integrative personal leadership. The problem is not that Obama has no grand strategy. The problem is that it is not working.
Obama’s grand strategy
Any grand strategy or overall foreign policy strategy does several things. First, it specifies certain national goals or ends. Second, it identifies the policy instruments or means by which national goals will be pursued. These instruments might include, for example, diplomatic commitments, military intervention, foreign aid, and/or economic sanctions. Any viable strategy must ensure that means and ends are well matched. Commitments must not exceed capabilities. Yet strategy — unlike say, sculpture — also recognizes that our targets are animate objects, with the ability to respond, make choices, and fight back. Consequently, effective foreign policy strategists must and do strike a fine balance. On the one hand, they need to know what they want. On the other, they must be flexible as to how exactly they pursue it, given the inevitable surprises resulting from pushback by other actors within the international system.
The primary ends and means of Obama’s foreign policy strategy can be inferred from both his actions and his words, which have been broadly consistent since his election to the White House. To begin, his chief policy interest is not in the international realm at all, but in the domestic. Obama’s leading motivation for becoming president, as he himself has said, was not simply to get elected, much less to focus on foreign affairs, but to “remake America.” He aims at and has already achieved dramatic liberal or progressive reforms in numerous domestic policy areas such as health care and financial regulation.
This focus on liberal domestic reform has several implications for American grand strategy, as Obama well knows. First, it means that resources must be shifted in relative terms from national security spending to domestic social and economic spending — a shift clearly visible in recent federal budgets. Second, it means steering clear of partisan political fights over national security that might detract from Obama’s overall political capital. Third, it means that potentially costly new international entanglements must for the most part be avoided. Sometimes these three imperatives are in tension with one another. For example, in the autumn of 2009, Obama was tempted to begin winding down America’s military engagement in Afghanistan, yet at the same time wanted to avoid appearing weak on terrorism. So he settled on an approach that called for temporary U.S. escalation in Afghanistan, resolved by subsequent disengagement beginning in July 2011. That approach was hardly optimal militarily, but it was the least bad policy for Obama in domestic political terms given his overarching priorities. As with some previous presidents, such as Richard Nixon, an overall shift toward American strategic retrenchment is masked by temporary or short-term military escalations. So it is with Obama. The current president’s central reason for international retrenchment, however, is not really America’s economic insolvency per se, since he has actually added to that insolvency in dramatic fashion, but rather the concern that foreign commitments and national security disputes might detract money, time, and attention from his very ambitious domestic reform agenda. Again, the main implication of such concerns in Obama’s case is an overall emphasis on international and military retrenchment, although one tempered by the desire to pre-empt domestic criticism from foreign policy hawks.
The domestic political arguments for international retrenchment are matched and supplemented, in Obama’s mind, by a genuine philosophical case for a more accommodating American stance abroad. By all appearances Obama sincerely believes, and has certainly said repeatedly over the years, that the United States should be more accommodating toward potential adversaries and rivals overseas — accommodating of their interests, their perspectives, and their wishes. The reason is that through accommodation, these potential rivals can be turned, if not into friends, then at least into something other than adversaries. At least this is what Obama believes. He can certainly be cold-blooded when making short-term or tactical calculations in relation to clear, existing U.S. enemies. After all, this is a president who hunted down Osama Bin Laden, and has escalated the use of unmanned drone strikes — basically targeted killings — against suspected terrorists in Pakistan. So there are clearly certain international or transnational actors who in Obama’s view are irreconcilable to core American values and interests. But this category is very small, and it never seems to rise to the level of state actors. The assumption appears to be that virtually any nation-state can be successfully engaged, regardless of regime type. Even the Taliban, we are told by numerous administration officials, is chock full of people who can be peeled off through diplomatic negotiation and accommodated to American designs if only we have the courage to try.
This faith in the endless possibilities of diplomatic engagement reflects a deeper conviction on the part of the president and his supporters. At heart, Obama does not really believe that conflict is at the essence of world politics. On the contrary, he believes that genuine and overarching international cooperation is possible, if apparent adversaries can learn to listen to and accommodate one another. Moreover he has a very specific and characteristic formula for promoting such cooperation — a style he seems to have first fully developed as a community organizer in Chicago. It is not through traditional American and classical liberal mechanisms such as the bold promotion of democracy or economic interdependence overseas. Rather, it is through the mutual accommodation of interests, led by American example.
What this means is that in the case of partially adversarial or even hostile relationships with other countries, the United States under Obama reaches out and makes some initial concession or accommodation, in the expectation of reciprocal concession. In such cases, “American leadership” or “leading by example” means essentially taking the lead in making concessions. Similarly, in the case of friendly or allied relationships, the United States under Obama frequently proposes multiple new regimens or collective concessions — sometimes on the part of democratic allies, sometimes on the part of the U.S. — in order to catalyze broad processes of international accommodation on specific issue areas such as arms control, counterterrorism, or climate change. Either way, the expectation is one of progressive agreement, reduced conflict, and increased cooperation internationally, based upon mutual accommodation, and sparked by American example. And insofar as the president views America’s world power as being in relative and perhaps inevitable decline, that only reinforces the argument for an accommodationist approach overseas.
The regional and practical implications of this strategy of accommodation have been clear and quite deliberate since Obama entered the White House. On the issue of climate change, the U.S. went into the Copenhagen conference of December 2009 offering to make significant cuts in American carbon emissions, in the hope that this position would trigger similar concessions from other leading industrial powers such as China. On the issue of nuclear arms control, the Obama administration offered an even more striking set of accommodationist proposals: The U.S. would work toward the ratification of a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (start) with Russia, and even embrace the goal of “nuclear zero,” or the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide, in the hopes of triggering similar efforts toward nuclear disarmament in cases such as North Korea and Iran. Obama understood that there were certain trade-offs with such an approach, and he was willing to make them. For example, if the top American priority in relation to Iran was to negotiate the termination of that country’s illicit nuclear weapons program, then concerns regarding democracy promotion inside Iran could not be allowed to trump efforts toward a negotiated settlement with the existing regime. Similarly, if a top American priority in relation to Russia was to secure Moscow’s help on nuclear nonproliferation, then Obama would hold off on antagonizing Moscow over other issues such as Georgia, missile defense, or human rights within Russia.
On the issue of terrorism, Obama has made clear his expectation that a series of significant American and allied gestures would help to ease transnational counterterror efforts, while undercutting support within the Muslim world for violent extremist groups like al Qaeda. The U.S. would withdraw militarily from Iraq; “end torture”; close detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay; engage in public outreach toward Muslims worldwide; and press for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, on the assumption that such measures in combination help to undercut anti-American sentiments internationally. In the case of Israel, it was not so much the United States but the Israelis themselves who were expected to help kick-start peace negotiations by imposing a freeze on the construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
To be sure, Obama has simultaneously authorized some aggressive counterterrorism efforts such as the 2009–2010 escalation in Afghanistan, the tracking of Bin Laden, and increased drone strikes overseas. But the overall tone, compared to that of the Bush administration, has been more accommodating toward international criticism of U.S. counterterror practices. Indeed Obama made it abundantly clear, especially when first running for president in 2007–08, that he agreed with much of this international criticism, and viewed the Bush administration itself as a major source of American foreign policy problems. On the issue of counterterrorism, as on others, Obama stated repeatedly that the United States lost much of its international reputation and moral standing under George W. Bush, and that a different set of policies as well as a different leader could regain that standing and reputation with a more conciliatory approach. Obama himself would be especially well-suited to this role, his supporters suggested, not only because of his status as the first African American president, but because of his international background, his charisma, and his proven ability to bring people together across cultural, ethnic, and political divides. There is little doubt that Obama shares this ambitious view of his own personal possibilities as a history-making figure.
This leads us to one final, striking feature of Obama’s overall foreign policy strategy as it relates to questions of process and procedure. Obama understands that when it comes to foreign policy, the president’s role is absolutely crucial. Presidents play the leading role in shaping overall U.S. foreign policy choices and priorities whether they want to or not. Inevitably, these choices and priorities involve domestic political and policy tradeoffs. Obama is therefore determined to keep the central foreign policy decisions in his own hands, and to make them with care. To say that he prides himself on his analytical and decision-making capabilities would be an understatement. He has tremendous confidence in his ability to personally dissect, articulate, and manage various stages of the foreign policy process. He does not really believe that he needs one or more big-picture foreign policy strategists in the room when he is making the crucial decisions. He is determined to play that role himself.
Under this system, Secretary of State Clinton is the public face of American diplomacy, a role she plays well, but she does not appear to be at the true center of decision-making on multiple issues Obama deems vital. Robert Gates was exceptionally effective as secretary of defense, and predominated within his bailiwick, but he did so in part by recognizing Obama’s overall policy goals. His successor Leon Panetta will no doubt grant Obama at least as much deference. The president’s first national security advisor, James Jones, was neither suited nor permitted to play the role of coordinator and honest broker between various agencies and departments. Jones’s successor, Thomas Donilon, was brought in to help organize and rationalize the foreign policy process, precisely because he is sensitive to the president’s political needs, and not because he is expected to play the role of grand strategist. Obama is his own grand strategist, and whatever tactical adjustments he makes on either process or substance, he is not about to relinquish that role.
To sum up, despite widespread criticisms to the contrary, Obama does have an overarching foreign policy strategy, one which predates the Arab Spring and has outlasted it. This strategy simply does not fit neatly into the usual categories by which the subject traditionally operates. Obama speaks sincerely of the need for peaceful settlement of disputes abroad, but he hunts down Bin Laden and escalates militarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is unsentimental about bargaining with hardened autocrats, but he expects patterns of international cooperation to spiral upward as a result of U.S. diplomatic outreach. Consequently he is not easily categorized as a realist or an idealist, a hawk or a dove, because he has points of similarity and points of disagreement with each school of thought. And to say that he is an internationalist, as opposed to an isolationist, is true as far as it goes, but still presents the question: Exactly what sort of internationalist?
The answer is, one who believes in expanding possibilities for mutual accommodation between nation-states, sparked by American example, and in the potentially integrative qualities of his own personal leadership on the world stage — all of which is intended not only to encourage international cooperation, but above all to permit a refocusing on progressive domestic reforms within the United States.
The failure of accommodation
It has now been almost three years since Obama entered the White House — plenty of time to assess the effectiveness of his foreign policy strategy. And it must be said that in important respects his strategy of accommodation has failed. Obama’s personal leadership has not really altered the basic dynamics of leading international or transnational conflicts and disputes. Nor have American outreach, accommodation, and diplomatic concessions triggered significantly greater international cooperation on issues such as nonproliferation. To some extent, of course, Obama has been constrained in the implementation of his strategy by domestic political criticism or pushback on many of these issues. Yet the failures appear to involve international pushback as well.
On climate change, for example, the administration went into the 2009 Copenhagen conference offering significant reductions in U.S. carbon emissions. China’s response was essentially a refusal to make any comparable reductions in absolute terms, and the conference achieved virtually nothing of practical import. Intellectually honest environmentalists admit that Obama’s international climate initiatives are now dead in the water.
On nuclear nonproliferation, the administration bent over backwards to accommodate Moscow, partly in the hopes of triggering meaningful progress in relation to Iran. Specifically, the U.S. signed a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that gave Moscow most of what it wanted, including apparently an informal understanding on missile defenses. Russia responded by helping to ratchet up un sanctions on Iran a notch. But these sanctions show no sign of altering the Iranian regime’s basic determination to build nuclear weapons while simultaneously denying that it is doing so.
Indeed, Iran has become the leading case of failed attempted accommodation. Obama has made it abundantly clear through a variety of public and private messages that he is willing to negotiate in earnest over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Iran is obviously not interested. The only notable responses forthcoming from Tehran have been downright mendacious, misleading, and uncompromising. The current U.S. strategy of outreach and accommodation has had almost three years to draw some sort of minimally constructive response from Iran, and it has not worked.
The accommodationist elements within Obama’s initial counterterrorism approach have faced a similar fate. Most of his early proposals on detention and interrogation have been dialed back at least partway, the end result of which has been consternation and confusion all around. To be sure, the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden this past spring was a great success, for which congratulations are in order, but that very success was due to the fact that in this particular case Obama ignored accommodationist pieties throughout the operation. The strike against Bin Laden’s secret compound was a unilateral American military operation launched inside of Pakistan without the permission of that country, based upon intelligence gathered aggressively over a period of years dating back to the Bush administration, and without excessive concern for absurdly legalistic objections. On the other hand, there is no indication that those sympathetic to al Qaeda are especially impressed by Obama’s personality or by his halting efforts to pressure Israel while partially reforming U.S. detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists. Attempted home-grown attacks by radicalized Islamists within the United States have only increased since 2009. Nobody can reasonably say that Obama is primarily responsible for these attempts, but it is just as unreasonable to suggest that support for terrorism between 2001 and 2008 was primarily due to the policies of George W. Bush. The point is that anti-American terrorists plot their attacks without being appeased by particular U.S. policy concessions or presidents. The radical Islamist hatred of American influence continues regardless of specific administrations, and it is profoundly solipsistic to think otherwise.
The problem with Obama’s strategy of accommodation therefore goes beyond specific case-by-case frustrations. The problem is more fundamental and inherent to his approach. As a general rule, foreign governments or transnational actors do not feel obliged to alter their basic policy preferences or to make unwanted concessions of their own simply because an American president is accommodating or charismatic. This is not how international politics works. If the interests, goals, and priorities of other national governments align with those of the United States on specific issues, then those governments will cooperate with Washington on those issues. If not, they won’t. Either way, whether we like it or not, the goals and priorities of foreign governments are defined by those governments, and not by the president of the United States. Any American president can alter the costs and benefits for other countries to cooperate with the U.S. on specific matters, by offering specific incentives or disincentives, but he cannot literally redefine how other governments view their own vital interests, and it is delusional to think that he can. If Washington offers a particular policy concession to another government in exchange for some concrete, reciprocal concession of real interest to the U.S., then that is one thing. Such negotiations are at the heart of international diplomacy. But to make the concession beforehand — unilaterally, as it were — or to offer it up broadly to the entire planet as a whole in the hopes of unspecified reciprocity from particular countries, is to ignore the normal workings of international relations.
Look at how Obama’s strategy of accommodation has played out in relation to four categories of foreign governments: 1) those essentially hostile to the United States, 2) those who pursue a mixture of strategic rivalry and cooperation, 3) genuine American allies, and 4) Arab governments of varying allegiance.
The first category, of regimes basically hostile to the United States, includes the governments of Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, to name only four of the most notable. Each of these governments has literally defined itself at a fundamental level by violent opposition to America. To think that a conciliatory tone, a preliminary concession, or a well-intentioned desire for better relations on the part of a U.S. president by itself will transform that hostility is simply naïve. In the case of Cuba, for example, the Obama administration began by lifting certain economic sanctions, in the hope of seeing some reciprocal concessions from the Castro brothers: political liberalization, an easing of anti-American hostility, anything at all of significance. No such concessions have been made. The case of Iran has already been discussed — Obama reached out to Tehran with great fanfare in 2009, and has received in effect a slap in the face. Both Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il are likewise just as hostile and provocative toward the United States today as they were when George W. Bush was America’s president. This is because the fundamental barrier to friendly U.S. relations with those regimes was never George W. Bush. The fundamental barrier to friendly relations with these regimes is the fact that they are bitterly hostile to the United States. The kinds of concessions that Washington would have to offer to win their genuine accommodation would be so sweeping, massive, and unacceptable, from the point of view of any likely U.S. president that they will not be made — and certainly not by Barack Obama. Any smaller concessions from Washington, therefore, are simply pocketed by a hostile regime, which continues along in its basic antipathy toward the United States.
The second category, of regimes that pursue a mixture of rivalry and cooperation with America, includes major autocratic powers such as China and Russia. These governments continue to view the United States under Obama as a strategic threat to their stature and integrity, but they pursue cooperation with Washington in certain areas such as trade and arms control while simultaneously pursuing geopolitical competition with the U.S. Their common interests with Washington are more extensive, and their hostility toward the U.S. less profound, than is the case with Iran or North Korea. Nevertheless the governments of China and Russia, like most governments overseas, are largely indifferent to Obama’s personal charms. They are interested in whether he concedes to their interests and priorities, not in his personal background as such, or in any vision he might have for a more liberal international order. In cases where Obama gives Moscow or Beijing most of what they want, as he did for instance in the 2009–10 New start negotiations with Russia, then naturally they are happy to accept the concession, and even to offer a modest quid pro quo. But in cases where he offers accommodating or hopeful gestures, yet runs up against the perceived vital national interests of either power, then they simply decline to offer any reciprocal and proportionate accommodation. Neither power, for example, has any intention of surrendering its nuclear arsenal, no matter what Obama says or does in relation to his goal of nuclear zero. Nor has either power offered truly serious cooperation with regard to Iranian or North Korean nuclear proliferation. Chinese and Russian leaders are not especially impressed by Obama. If anything, they are encouraged by the implication of long-term U.S. strategic withdrawal under his leadership, because it leaves them stronger within their own neighborhoods. In this case, as in many others, American strategic disengagement is not interpreted as transformational benevolence, but as a sign of weakness.
The third category, of genuine American allies, includes longstanding strategic and democratic friendly partners of the United States such as Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. These are often the countries where Obama’s popularity on the street as a substitute for George W. Bush is the greatest. Even so, this popularity has not really translated into meaningful policy concessions in areas where the U.S. and its allies differ. In relation to the war in Afghanistan, for example, America’s European friends are no more enthusiastic or helpful to the United States than they were when Bush was president. Nor have leading European governments actually altered other core foreign policy preferences in response to Obama’s popularity. France, for example, is not about to abandon its nuclear arsenal simply because the U.S. embraces the concept of nuclear abolition. Indeed American allies are sometimes unnerved by Obama’s instinctive refusal to divide the world into friends and enemies. This is certainly true of Israel, and also of numerous European governments. Obama sets a rather cool, distant tone in relation to traditional U.S. friends like Great Britain. America’s allies in countries such as Poland, Colombia, and Israel do not understand why Obama reaches out to hostile governments in Cuba and Iran, while often maintaining a studied detachment from clearly democratic and close U.S. partners. Part of the answer is that Obama expects allies such as Israel, Poland, and Georgia to mimic and line up behind his own strategy of international accommodation. In effect he would like to outsource the strategy of accommodation to America’s allies where possible. Israel, for example, is expected to accommodate Palestinian demands. Georgia and Poland are expected to accommodate Russia. Fortunately Obama’s willingness to pressure U.S. allies into accommodating their own adversaries has its limits. In any case, the United States will continue to cooperate with its core democratic allies in many ways on trade, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation, as it already was cooperating under Bush. The overall pattern here is much more one of continuity over the past five years or so than of change.
The last category, deserving of special mention given the upheavals over the last year, consists of Arab governments with varying allegiances in relation to the United States. The Arab Spring of 2011 presented the Obama administration with a classic U.S. foreign policy dilemma of whether to bolster or pressure American allies in response to indigenous popular pressures. One can certainly sympathize with the need to balance U.S. national security imperatives with democratic aspirations, and to use a case-by-case approach, but Obama’s accommodationist foreign policy assumptions led him to make some strange choices. Specifically, the failure to make a clear distinction between America’s allies and its adversaries led him to be too hard on some of its allies and too easy on some of its enemies within the Arab world.
In the case of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Obama administration publicly and abruptly abandoned a longstanding U.S. ally, with little indication that any successor would be friendlier to U.S. interests on vital issues such as counterterrorism. There is a strong possibility that the bitterly anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood will assume increased power in Egypt, but this does not seem to especially bother Obama, who likes to distinguish between radical Islamists like Osama Bin Laden and radical Islamists amenable to reason and accommodation. In the case of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the Obama administration went remarkably easy for quite some time on the regime’s violent crackdown against peaceful protestors, under the premise that the U.S. needed Syria on a range of regional issues such as peace negotiations with Israel. Again, the mistake was in a failure to recognize that the Syrian government is in fact a staunch adversary of Israel, the United States, and U.S. interests within the Middle East. But for an American president unwilling to think in these stark terms, no such clarifying distinctions are necessary or constructive, since they supposedly divert from possibilities for fruitful cooperation.
Finally, in the case of Libya, as Muammar el-Qaddafi launched a crackdown of his own, Obama made the strangest choice of all, settling on an incoherent policy of extremely circumspect humanitarian intervention under the strictest possible limitations. Whether one was a robust humanitarian, a realist, or a foreign policy hawk, the painfully half-hearted manner of Obama’s Libyan intervention made no sense whatsoever. It made sense only in purely domestic political terms — or to those who believe that asking the permission of the Arab League when sending U.S. armed forces into battle is intrinsically important. Then again, Obama and many of his core supporters view multilateralism in foreign policy as not only useful, but as an end in itself, since it indicates American goodwill and humility. They therefore judge an intervention like that in Libya primarily on whether it is done in a circumspect, shared, and multilaterally approved fashion. This is an amazing primary criterion on which to launch and conduct armed combat, but apparently it looks perfectly reasonable to the president and his inner circle.
Throughout the events of the Arab Spring, Obama seemed to want autocratic regional governments — however friendly or unfriendly to the United States — to accommodate popular uprisings with at least some token liberal reforms. Arab governments that failed to cooperate in this minimal way tended to lose Obama’s support. Yet here as elsewhere, expectations of mutual accommodation triggered by American instruction proved unrealistic. On the contrary, the failure to distinguish clearly and accurately between U.S. allies and U.S. adversaries in the Middle East left the administration without a reliable compass, floundering and out of its depth.
The Obama doctrine, revisited
Obama is smart, well-intentioned, and methodical, but he is working on the basis of some deeply flawed assumptions about international politics, and it shows. When he ran for president several years ago, he suggested that most U.S. foreign policy problems abroad were due to America’s own policies under George W. Bush, and that if only the United States adopted a more accommodating approach there could be dramatic progress toward international cooperation on a wide variety of issues. In truth this was a profoundly self-centered argument, both in relation to the United States and to Obama himself. Violent or intractable transnational and international conflicts and rivalries on a whole host of issues are not actually unusual in world politics. They existed long before Obama was president, and will continue to do so. The international system possesses far less moral unity and collective police power than a single stable city, state, or country. The challenges of world politics are therefore not analogous to community organization at the local level. U.S. presidents do not hover over the international arena as disinterested assemblers and observers, nor should they. The task of an American president is not to play the role of un Secretary-General or Pope. The task of an American president is to promote U.S. national interests overseas, guided to be sure by a sense of both prudence and justice. Obama is for many Americans a kind of inspirational personal bridge between races, as well as a bridge between his own country’s past, present, and future. This is fine, but any desired projection on to the international realm is mistaken, not to mention pretentious. Obama may be a bridge for many Americans; he is not and cannot be a bridge between nations.
In one case after another, conciliatory or accommodating gestures and concessions by the Obama administration toward various international targets have not resulted in much concrete reciprocity. This is not because the strategy of accommodation needs more time. It is because the strategy is misconceived to begin with. Broad processes of international cooperation and accommodation on issues such as proliferation, climate change, and counterterrorism cannot be kick-started by American concession if other important international players do not see it as being in their own interest. Preliminary American concessions on economic sanctions do not impress the Cuban government. U.S. diplomatic overtures do not impress the Iranian government. American proposals on climate change do not impress the Chinese government. Calls for nuclear abolition do not impress the North Korean government. Proposed revision of U.S. detention and interrogation practices does not impress Islamist radicals.
So who is supposed to be the target audience here? The true audience and for that matter the ultimate source of these various conciliatory policy initiatives is essentially a small, transnational, North Atlantic class of bien pensant opinion who already share Obama’s core policy priorities in any case. They have rewarded him with their support, as well as with the Nobel Peace Prize. Others internationally are less impressed. And in the meantime, we may have lost something, in terms of the ability to seriously prepare for certain looming security challenges. A primary and continuing emphasis on diplomatic engagement after Iran has repeatedly rebuffed the United States does not help us to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. A declared commitment to nuclear abolition does nothing to convince other nuclear powers to abandon their own arsenals, and may even be counterproductive in the sense that it deludes important segments of opinion into believing that such declarations actually help to keep the peace. Obama has said from the beginning that the purpose of his more conciliatory foreign policy approach was to bolster American standing in the world, but the definition of international standing has actually been highly self-referential in the direction of aforementioned transatlantic liberal opinion. In many cases overseas, from the perspective of other governments, Obama’s well-intentioned conciliatory gestures are read as a sign of weakness, and consequently undermine rather than bolster American standing.
In one way, however, Obama has already achieved much of what he desired with his strategy of accommodation, and that is to re-orient American national resources and attention away from national security concerns and toward the expansion of domestic progressive reforms. He appears to sincerely believe that these liberal domestic initiatives in areas such as health care and finance will also bolster American economic power and competiveness. Actually they will do no such thing, since heavy-handed and constantly changing federal regulations tend to undermine investor confidence as well as long-term U.S. economic growth. But either way, Obama’s vision of a more expansive government role in American society is well on its way to being achieved, without from his point of view debilitating debates over major national security concerns. In that sense, especially if he is reelected in 2012, several of his major strategic priorities will have been accomplished.
Any good strategy must incorporate the possibility of pushback or resistance from unexpected quarters. As they say in the U.S. military, the enemy gets a vote. So, for that matter, do other countries, whether friendly or not. When things do not go exactly according to plan, any decent strategy and any capable leader adapt. Indeed any decent foreign policy strategy begins with the recognition for backup plans, since inevitably things will not go exactly according to plan. Other countries rarely respond to our initial strategic moves in precisely the way we might wish. The question then becomes: What is plan B?
Obama is tactically very flexible, but at the level of grand strategy he seems to have no backup plan. There is simply no recognition of the possibility that world politics might not operate on the post-Vietnam liberal assumptions he has imbibed and represented over the years. Obama’s critics often describe him as providing no strong foreign policy leadership. They underestimate him. Actually he has a very definite idea of where he wants to take the United States. His guiding foreign policy idea is that of international accommodation, sparked by American example. He pursues that overarching concept with great tactical pliability but without any sign of ideological or basic revision since coming into office. Yet empirically, in one case after another, the strategy is not working. This is a kind of leadership, to be sure, but leadership in the wrong direction.
How can the Obama administration adapt and adjust to the failures of its strategy of accommodation? It can admit that the attempted diplomatic engagement of Iran has failed, and shift toward a strategy of comprehensive pressure against that regime. It can make it abundantly clear to both the Taliban and al Qaeda that the United States will not walk away from Afghanistan, despite the beginning drawdown. It can start treating Russia as a geopolitical rival, which it is, rather than simply as a diplomatic partner. It can strengthen U.S. missile defenses as a form of insurance against nuclear proliferators. There is a long list of policy recommendations that can be made on specific regional and functional matters, but the prior and most important point is the need for a change in mentality. President Obama needs to stop working on the assumption that U.S. foreign policy concessions or gestures directed at the gallery of elite transatlantic opinion — whether on nuclear arms control, counterterrorism, or climate change — will somehow be reciprocated by specific foreign governments in the absence of some very hard bargaining. He needs to grasp that U.S. strategic disengagement from specific regional theaters, whether promised or underway, is taken as a sign of weakness in those regions and not simply as a sign of benevolent restraint. He needs to recognize that America’s international reputation consists not only of working toward his own definition of the moral high ground, but also very much of a reputation for strength, and specifically of a reputation for the willingness to use force. He needs to stop operating on the premise that past American foreign policy decisions are the ultimate source of much violent discord in the world today. He needs to be willing to divide the international system conceptually and operationally into friends and enemies, as they actually exist, and to support America’s friends while pressuring and opposing its enemies relentlessly. Finally, he needs to admit the limited effect of his own personal charisma on the foreign policies of other governments. The president of the United States is not an international community organizer. If the conceptual framework that underpins Obama’s foreign policy strategy is altered, then better policies will flow on a wide range of specific issues.
Admittedly, there is little chance that Obama will concede any of this. One of the things we know from historical example is that presidents tend to keep operating on their own inbuilt foreign policy assumptions, even as contrary evidence piles up. It usually takes either a dramatic external shock, or a new administration altogether, to bring about a major revaluation of existing assumptions. Curiously, this resistance to contrary evidence in foreign policy appears to be even truer of highly educated, self-confident, and intelligent people with core ideological convictions — a description that certainly fits President Obama. Obama is malleable on tactics, and he takes great care to project an aura of sensible calm, but in truth he is a conviction president powered by certain core ideological beliefs and vaulting policy ambitions. His characteristic response when these core beliefs and ambitions are truly tested by opponents or events is not to bend, but to bristle. He is therefore particularly unlikely to admit or even perceive that a foreign policy strategy based upon faulty assumptions of international accommodation is failing or has failed. Nor is it politically convenient for him to do so. More likely, he will continue along his chosen path, offering nothing more than tactical adjustments, until some truly dramatic event occurs which brings his whole foreign policy strategy into question — an Iranian nuclear test, for example.
If Iran were to test a nuclear device in open defiance of the United States, then we might well see a serious internal rethinking of this administration’s accommodationist foreign policy assumptions, for a wide variety of very good reasons. By that time, of course, it would be too late to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. Indeed Obama may view Iran’s rise and America’s disengagement regionally as inevitable over the long run. But at the very least, after an Iranian nuclear test, he would be forced to take a much tougher approach toward Iran. He would probably announce new U.S. military deployments in the Persian Gulf region, toughened economic sanctions, and increased support for Iran’s opposition Green movement. He might even declare publicly, in terms similar to those used by previous presidents such as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter, that the United States will support any allies within the Middle East against aggression from a hostile power. And then this hard line declaration, ironically, would become known to history as the Obama doctrine — thus ending debate once and for all over the meaning of that term.