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The domestication of foreign policy: Obama edition

The domestication of foreign policy: Obama edition

Obama supporters are becoming some of the most interesting critics of Obama foreign policy. There has always been a vibrant Republican critique of the President, and for years there has been a far-left fringe-Democrat bill of particulars as well. But in recent months some of the most trenchant of the critiques have come from center-left Democrats, echoing (usually without acknowledging it) the long-standing arguments made by Republicans.

I have noted this phenomenon before, calling attention to the complaints of otherwise ardent Obama supporters: see David Rothkopf, David Ignatius, Rosa Brooks, or Tom Ricks. Since then there have been more: Rachel Kleinfeld’s blunt deconstruction of the President’s policies on Syria; Bob Woodward’s correction of the record on Obama’s attempt to disassociate himself from the sequester; and David Brooks’ uncharacteristic lament about Obama’s irresponsibility alongside his customary critique of Republican irresponsibility. 

To be sure, other loyal Obama supporters have pushed back. Ezra Klein tried and so far failed to beat Woodward back on the sequester issue. Klein had more success in getting David Brooks to recant. (The Klein-Brooks exchange is doubly revealing, since Brooks acknowledged up front that his original column was hyperbolic, but neither he nor Klein expressed any interest in exploring the ways the hyperbole distorted the role of Republicans. They only focused on correcting alleged distortions regarding Obama.) 

Yet there does seem to be a turning of the tide, a return to something closer to the even-handed and candid assessment of Obama’s strengths and weaknesses that has been missing in the mainstream media. The moment is ripe for a Big Think attempt to stitch the critiques together and, if sneak-previews are a reliable indication of what is to come, Vali Nasr’s The Dispensable Nation may win the intellectual sweepstakes. Like the other recent critics, Nasr has been a supporter of President Obama — he held an advisory position at the State Department in the first term, working for the late Richard Holbrooke. According to early reviews by Richard Cohen and by Roger Cohen, much of the book appears to be score-settling, defending Holbrooke’s uneven performance as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and blaming policy failures on backstabbing by White House officials. 

However, Nasr goes beyond that to make an overarching claim that President Obama has subordinated foreign policy and national security to domestic partisan politics. Thus, regardless of the issue — how to win in Afghanistan, how to stop the Syrian civil war, how to manage the post-Qaddafi mess in Libya — Nasr claims that Obama interprets the American national interest through the parochial lens of Obama’s own partisan political interests. The line between foreign policy and domestic politics has been erased. 

This is not a new critique. Republicans have leveled it at Obama before. It was a staple of Democratic criticism of President George W. Bush — including, ironically, then-State Senator Barack Obama in his famous speech against the Iraq war. And it was a staple of criticism of President Bill Clinton. 

Indeed, the reported thesis of Nasr’s book prompted me to dig through my archives to find one of the more obscure publications of my professional career: "The Domestication of Foreign Policy," published in the American Foreign Policy Interests back in 1998. In that long-forgotten piece, I took as my point of departure Aaron Wildavsky’s "two president’s thesis" — the idea that presidents could conduct foreign policy in a way very different from how they conduct domestic policy because of the greater role of domestic political considerations in the latter area — and argued that President Clinton had presided over the death of the thesis. All the constraints of domestic politics, and thus all of the domestic political approaches and orientations, applied with equal force under Clinton whether the issue was domestic or foreign policy. What foreign policy pundits considered contradictory in Clinton’s foreign policy was merely the side-effect of this domestication process.

I attributed this to deep causes — the absence of an urgent existential threat and the rise of media and public opinion influences — and also to proximate causes. The deep causes still apply, but what is striking is how much the proximate causes echo between Clinton’s first term and Obama’s current situation:

  • Clinton’s decision to out-promise Bush on foreign policy issues in the 1992 campaign, followed by the need to backtrack to achieve continuity with Bush’s policies once governing realities exposed the campaign promises as too grandiose.
  • The lack of end-game analysis resulting in too many blusters and bluffs – e.g., on Korean nuclear weapons or on the hunt for Aidid.
  • The staff’s difficulty in being able to predict the President’s bottom line – e.g., would the President really order the invasion of Haiti?
  • Clinton’s unwillingness to spend political capital on foreign policy matters, notwithstanding some important exceptions like NAFTA.
  • Clinton’s delegation of the legitimation function to external institutions, especially the UN, a result of what I called the "curse of Desert Storm," which was a rare example of the organization working almost exactly as planned — an impossible standard Clinton struggled in vain to replicate.

Clinton evolved in the second term, with a more forceful and, in some ways, more successful foreign policy in the second term than he was credited with in the first. But it is the first term mark that provides the apples-to-apples comparison with Obama. All of these apply with equal if not greater force to the Obama Administration. Only on one proximate cause of the domestication of foreign policy does Obama differ markedly from Clinton’s first term: Clinton engaged promiscuously (compared with Bush 41’s caution) but Obama has been even more cautious about global engagement than Bush 41, far more than Bush 43 or Clinton. This is because Obama learned a lesson that eluded Clinton in his first term: Public opinion frowns on engagements that are well-intentioned but fail. 

What remains to be seen is whether the public also frowns on non-engagements that are well-meant but fail. Rwanda was that for Clinton, and it looms much larger today in the reckoning than it did as it was unfolding. Syria may prove to be Obama’s Rwanda. The growing voices of once-friendly critics indicate that at least some influential members of his own team think so.