Daniel W. Drezner

Drezner vs. Walt…. vs. Walt

Drezner vs. Walt…. vs. Walt

My FP colleague Steve Walt has responded to my Obama-praising blog post with a long litany of Obama foreign policy failures.  He includes climate change, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the global economy, North Korea, failing to cure cancer…. you get the drift. 

Walt closes with the following observation: 

Where Dan and I agree, however, is the crucial role of domestic politics. For if you look at the failures listed above, what is striking is that most of them are heavily shaped by domestic constraints. Doing something serious about climate change would have real consequences for business and consumers, and that wasn’t going to happen when we are teetering on the brink of another recession. Making progress on Israel-Palestine or on Iran would require bringing in a new Middle East team and taking on the Israel lobby (including the Christianist wing of the GOP), and Obama abandoned that course after the Cairo speech in June 2009. His decisions to escalate in Afghanistan and to try to stay in Iraq were clearly shaped by domestic political concerns, and especially the perennial Democratic fear of being perceived as "weak" on national security. Trade liberalization is always a contentious issue here at home, and especially tough to tackle with a weak economy.

In short, Dan’s broader point about Obama’s foreign policy successes is insightful: the president has done well in those relatively minor areas where domestic politics do not loom large and where he can exercise unilateral authority. But on the more important and more difficult issues where you would have to convince the American people to follow a new path, he’s come up mostly empty.

Steve raises some interesting issues, and as I noted in my initial post, I absolutely agree that Obama’s foreign policy has had flaws.  That said, I have a few quarrels with Walt’s claims

First, in some cases, what Walt would consider a "success" might not be what others consider a success.  On Iran, for example, Walt laments that "the administration [has not] managed to think outside the box and try a different approach."  Beyond the Leveretts, however (and Ron Paul), I’m not sure anyone else would agree with Steve in that assessment.  Furthermore, to be fair, I think there’s some pretty strong evidence that the administration did think outside the box in handling the nuclear issue.

Second, part of the issue here is how one defines a "success" in foreign policy. For example, Walt says the following on Libya as to why it’s a failure:

[D]idn’t the "Mission Accomplished" moment in 2003 in Iraq teach us about the dangers of declaring victory prematurely? We can all hope that the Libyan revolution fulfills its idealistic hopes and avoids the various pitfalls that lie ahead, but it is way too early to start bragging about it, or declaring it the model for future interventions. And if Libya does go south, enthusiasm for the "Obama Doctrine" will fade faster than watercolors in the Libyan sun.

Walt’s observation is eminently sensible — there are many ways in which Libya could evolve in a direction unfriendly to American interests. This gets to a deeper issue, which is how one defines "success" in politics vs. political science. Afghanistan looked like a success in 2001; Iraq looked like a success in 2003. Obviously, over time, these situations changed. As political scientists, we need to keep tabs on these developments.

In politics, however, voters tend not to do all that much updating, particularly in terms of foreign policy. It takes high-profile events for new information to filter down to candidates who read one whole page of foreign news almost every day the American public. It will be interesting to see how Libya (and Egypt, and Tunisia, and Syria, etc.) play out over the next few decades. My post was about the next year, however — and Obama will be able to claim credit if it looks like things are going well, and fall back on "we didn’t play that big of a role" if things fall apart. From a policy perspective, that’s a very cynical way of looking at things — but it makes sense from a political perspective.

Third, in many of the cases that Walt cites as failures, the problem isn’t necessarily the domestic politics of the United States but the domestic politics of other countries.  On climate change, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, it’s impossible to discuss the outcomes without recognizing the domestic political constraints/chaos in these countries.  While each of them possesses elements willing to cooperate with the United States, there are spoilers aplenty in all of these countries. This is a problem that Bush faced when he was in office, Obama has faced now, and will be a bigger problem over time.  It’s a sign that the degree of difficulty in conducting American foreign policy has gone up. 

This brings me to my final cavil.  I’d really like the Steve Walt of this blog post to reconcile his arguments with… the Steve Walt who just published "The End of the American Era" in The National Interest. See, that Steve Walt views American decline as both inevitable and structural, which implies that these outcomes aren’t a function of Obama’s leadership per se but impersonal forces of history. Many of the cases Walt cites as Obama "failures" in his blog post are treated as ineluctable outcomes of relative American decline in his TNI essay.  Which is it?