Daniel W. Drezner

Obama’s revealed foreign policy preferences

Obama’s revealed foreign policy preferences

The New Republic has relaunched in style, featuring a spiffy new website and a sitdown interview with President Barack Obama.  Alas, much of the interview was about internal GOP politics.  Only the last question was about foreign policy, but Obama provided an interesting answer.  In TNR owner Chris Hughes queried about how he morally copes with the ongoing violence in Syria without substantive U.S. intervention.  Here’s his response in full: 

Every morning, I have what’s called the PDB—presidential daily briefing—and our intelligence and national security teams come in here and they essentially brief me on the events of the previous day. And very rarely is there good news. And a big chunk of my day is occupied by news of war, terrorism, ethnic clashes, violence done to innocents. And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.

And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good. (emphasis added)

I hear a lot of loose talk about what Barack Obama’s foreign policy is really like, but I’d argue that the bolded sections pretty much encapsulate his foreign policy preferences.  For him, national interest and security trumps liberal values every day of the week and twice on Sundays. 

[But that’s a false dichotomy!!–ed.  You’ve been listening to too many Jon Favreau speeches. The easy foreign policy calls are when values and interests line up.  It’s when they conflict that we get a better sense of what’s vital and what’s… less important.]  Obama looks at Syria and sees a grisly situation where the status quo doesn’t hurt American interests — in fact, it’s a mild net positive.  Given that situation, Obama’s incentive to intervene is pretty low.

Does this mean Obama is amoral or un-American?  Hardly.  That answer suggests two things.  First. liberal values do matter to Obama — they just don’t matter as much as other things.  Second, to be fair, contra academic realism, there is a set of ethical values that are attached to realpolitik, and I think they inform Obama’s decision-making as well.  It seems pretty clear that Obama’s first foreign policy instinct after advancing the national interest is the foreign policy equivalent of the Hippocratic oath:  first, do no harm.  If you think about it, the one liberal deviation from Obama’s foreign policy is the Libya intervention, where he explicitly authorized the use of force for a mission that he acknowledged was not in the core national interest.  It worked, but we’ve seen/seeing the second-order effects in Benghazi and across Northern Africa. 

I’m bemused by neoconservatives who simutaneously pillory the Obama administration for the Benghazi screw-up, yet call for greater efforts to "do something" in Syria.  What happened in Benghazi, and Algeria, and Mali are the direct follow-ons from the last time the U.S. ramped up its efforts in a non-strategic situation.  If anything, it seems clear that Obama has learned from that lesson — as well as the Afghanistan "surge" — and determined that the utility of military intervention is more limited and the costs are even greater than he imagined in 2008.  Furthermore, as the Congo comment suggests, he’s also conscious that if one really wants to apply liberal ethical criteria to the use of Amertican force, then Syria is not at the top of the queue. 

Barack Obama neither an appeaser nor a liberal internationalist.  He’s someone who has a clear set of foreign policy preferences and an increasing risk aversion to the use of force as a tool of regime change.  That’s not unethical — it’s just based on a set of ethical principles that might be somewhat alien to America’s very, very liberal foreign policy community

Am I missing anything?