- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
There are two contradictory narratives about the last four years of Obama’s stewardship of foreign policy.
One is advanced by Obama supporters, former and wannabe-future members of the administration along with sympathizers in the media and the academy. This narrative would have you believe that Obama has been a foreign policy maestro, responsible for no consequential errors of commission or omission.
The other is advanced by Obama’s most hardened detractors, and at times has included official statements from the Romney campaign. This narrative would have you believe that Obama has been an unmitigated foreign policy disaster, responsible for the wholesale surrender of American interests around the globe.
The truth is somewhere in between. Obama has had some successes on the foreign policy front (chiefly when he has followed along a policy trajectory laid down by Republicans), but he has also presided over choices and actions that have hurt American interests. He has avoided the worst possible foreign policy blunders, but he has been responsible for many other decisions that were probably mistakes. He has erred on the side of taking the popular course rather than wise course, and this pattern means that his foreign policy spins today better than it will look in the years to come.
If Obama loses, there will be plenty of time for the historical record to balance itself and for the more reasonable mixed assessment to take root.
If Obama wins, however, there will be an urgent need for the Obama team to stop drinking their own bathwater and to do a sober self-assessment. The Bush administration did just that after winning reelection and the second term was, in some important respects, a distinct improvement over the first.
It is very difficult for any administration to do that, but I think the Obama team is especially challenged because they are so wedded to a distorted narrative about the first four years.
There is hope, however, in the form of insider voices calling for change. To that end, as the DC community hunkers down to endure Hurricane Sandy, my recommendation is that everyone involved with the foreign policy establishment read carefully two articles from FP.com, both by Rosa Brooks: "The Case for Intervention" and "You’ll never eat lunch in this town again!"
The articles have already generated considerable controversy in certain circles, but I am surprised how little they have penetrated the mainstream media. I asked a very distinguished reporter who has specialized in reporting on the Obama national security process about them the other day and he indicated he had never read them, even though her article effectively rebuts one of his primary story-lines.
Nor do I consider Brooks’ critique to be indisputable. For instance, I give Obama more credit for a strategic vision than she does and I think Obama has resisted Congressional pressure far more vigorously than she claims — for instance, he resisted Congressional pressure to ramp up sanctions on Iran in 2009 and 2010 so as to preserve his preferred policy of offering unconditional bilateral talks.
Yet on balance her critique is persuasive, all the more so because she cannot be dismissed as a shill for Romney. Indeed, in prior and subsequent posts, she has made her loyalties to Obama unmistakable.
But when she writes about her personal experience inside the Obama national security team, and when that is supplemented with ample quotes from other insiders, her critique has a unique authority.
Brooks’ two pieces combine to make up a compelling transition memo for those planning a possible Obama second term. Perhaps a Romney victory will preempt that planning. But just in case he wins a second term, we should all hope that Obama has a planning cell that gives greater credence to what the critics are saying than what the campaign is spinning.