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Why the Obama administration’s pragmatism is a failing strategy

Why the Obama administration’s pragmatism is a failing strategy

That David Brooks is practically a surrogate for the Obama presidential campaign probably shouldn’t be surprising, given that the supposedly conservative columnist for the New York Times endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Leaving aside his infelicitous use of terms like "multi-problemarity," Brooks’ current endorsement of the administration’s foreign policy — as an ingenious fox compared to the blundering hedgehog of its predecessor — averts its eyes from the continuity of policies. One might argue the same policies have been carried out with better management and cost-effectiveness than during the Bush administration, except that the Obama administration has proved itself no more adept — think the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan. Nor are they any more inclined than was the Bush administration to alter ideological positions on the role of the United Nations or the virtue of nuclear reductions or the need to "protect" American jobs or the centrality of Russia or the need to end the war in Iraq, even when evidence is plentiful their choices have negative consequences.

Brooks makes a general virtue of the president’s failures because they illustrate his resilience in adopting new policies. But a policy isn’t necessarily wrong because it is failing. It could be failing because the administration isn’t providing the necessary resources, hasn’t brought its different policy tools into supportive alignment, is being tested by adversaries to determine our commitment to see it through, is arrogantly assuming regional actors don’t understand their own interests and demanding they adopt our approach, takes near-term actions that undercut their long-term goals, or alienates actors that have the potential to ruin our approach. (All of these apply to Obama administration Afghanistan policy, incidentally.)

Brooks’ encomia is of a piece with praise of the Obama national security team in James Mann’s "The Obamians," and Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O’Hanlon’s "Bending History." A common theme in all these accounts is applauding the Obama team’s "new realists" for their pragmatism. A less flattering way to say this is that the Obama administration adopted the very policies they campaigned against, and jettisoned policies they support when the achieving of them proved difficult. As one comedian put it, President Obama would really be in trouble if he were running for president against the guy who got elected in 2008.

President Obama has made a lot of political hay over not being President Bush, but has succeeded only in a Nixon-to-China kind of way: He can get away with policies that liberals opposed when practiced by conservatives. Where the president has bungled, it has been by indulging new directions so admired by chroniclers of the administration. Here’s the tally of their signature initiatives:

  • writing off Iraq;
  • extending a hand to the governments of Iran and Syria;
  • clinging to a strategy for Afghanistan that isn’t executable because of their inability to align diplomatic, temporal and economic means to capitalize on our military actions; 
  • giving authoritarian governments the keys to our policy by refusing to consider U.S. action outside the framework of the U.N.;
  • allowing trade negotiations to fall dormant;
  • not understanding that Israeli confidence will need to be rebuilt for the middle east peace process to advance — the Fayad government has done great work improving security, President Abbas has done catastrophically little to produce the political constellation for effective governance and the compromises necessary for peace;
  • unwillingness to align us with the advance of freedom in the Middle East (not just once, but seriatum as the Arab Spring revolutions have unfolded), thereby compromising both our values and our potential influence with political movements newly participating in government; 
  • alternatively embracing then humiliating Pakistan because of tactical choices about Afghanistan rather than assisting the democratic transition in Pakistan that is so central to our longer-term interests;
  • loudly announcing a "pivot to Asia" that amounts to the shifting of 10 percent of our maritime effort across a decade;
  • irritating allies by "leading from behind" but claiming the credit where their hard work succeeds.

A seminal question for the 2012 campaign will be whether President Obama can sustain the support of liberals while championing conservative national security policies. The Obama campaign certainly believes national security is a winning issue, but early evidence should not be reassuring to the president’s supporters. The campaign’s swaggering bravado and politicization of national security issues seems to alienate independent voters, and it may even serve to dampen turnout among liberals less enraptured with the president’s new enthusiasm for targeted killings and disrespect for the sovereignty of other countries.

It also leaves an awful lot of room for Romney to lay claim to foreign policy themes with wide public resonance, such as the ideas that the most important and enduring international relationships are built on common values; that you build coalitions with countries that share your interests rather than allowing countries that don’t to determine your choices; that where governments are repressive they lose the legitimacy to govern; that trade agreements advance our own economy and force adversaries to play by the rules; that new democracies deserve our help in building the institutions and practices of governance; that sound management of our foreign affairs requires the ability to bring political, economic, and military means together cost-effectively; that American military power is essential to maintaining a global order that is in our interests.

This will not be a campaign about foreign policy, given the president’s mismanagement of the economy. But conservatives should not allow the president’s advocates to pretend their "new pragmatism" means there are no differences between liberals and conservatives on foreign policy, or shy away from advocating the principles that appeal to American voters.