Stephen M. Walt

Richard or Jimmy or Bill? (Oh my!)

Which president does Barack Obama resemble? Many people’s favorite comparison is to Franklin Roosevelt, because FDR faced challenges of a similar magnitude early in his own presidency. Plus, Obama seems to provoke the same sort of frothing-at-the-mouth paranoia among conservatives that Roosevelt did, and their rantings seem to have about as much effect.   FDR ...


Which president does Barack Obama resemble? Many people’s favorite comparison is to Franklin Roosevelt, because FDR faced challenges of a similar magnitude early in his own presidency. Plus, Obama seems to provoke the same sort of frothing-at-the-mouth paranoia among conservatives that Roosevelt did, and their rantings seem to have about as much effect.  

FDR aside, I’m struck by comparisons to three rather different Presidents: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. And I keep thinking that Nixon might be the better role model.

Could Obama be the new Nixon?

Like Obama, Nixon (and his foreign policy alter ego, Henry Kissinger), came to power in the middle of a ruinous war and in an era of economic difficulty.  Their foreign policy strategy had three main components: détente with the Soviet Union, a diplomatic opening to China (to balance the USSR), and greater reliance on key regional allies (aka the “Nixon Doctrine”). Though not without its problems, this strategy allowed the United States to trim its losses without conceding core interests, and gave the U.S. military time to recover and rebuild once the tragedy of Vietnam was over.

Is Obama following a similar approach in even more trying circumstances?  He is trying to get “peace with honor” in Iraq, and one could argue that his basic approach is the modern-day equivalent of “Vietnamization” — reduce U.S. combat troops and keep building up Iraq’s security forces, cross your fingers, and hope things hold together for a decent interval after we withdraw. In other words, the Persian Gulf equivalent of “peace with honor.” Nixon pursued détente with Russia; Obama wants a “reset” with Moscow and interested in détente with Iran. He is also trying to get more allied and/or regional support in key trouble spots like Central Asia. Nixon and Kissinger eventually understood that leading an effective Middle East peace process (as opposed to a sham one) could enhance U.S. influence, and Obama seems to have got this one figured out from the start.

In short, he’s trying to deal with Bush’s legacy by cutting losses, resolving conflicts, and getting help from our allies, in order to buy time for economic and military recovery. Sounds almost Nixonian (or maybe Kissingerian).

There are obviously some big differences between the two Presidents — Obama has more charisma in his little finger than Nixon had in his whole body — and America’s current circumstances lack the strategic clarity that the Cold War provided. The lack of a single threat to focus the mind makes another difference more worrisome: so far, there doesn’t appear to be anyone on Obama’s team who is responsible for coordinating different policy initiatives and bending them into a more-or-less coherent strategy.  Whatever you may think of Kissinger’s handling of foreign policy, he and Nixon did have an overarching strategic vision and Kissinger exercised more control over U.S. foreign policy than most of his successors managed to achieve.  

Or maybe he’s Jimmy Carter?

LIke Obama, Jimmy Carter was highly intelligent, ambitious, and relatively inexperienced. Both Carter and Obama committed themselves to advancing the peace process in the Middle East at the beginning of their Presidencies, both emphasized the need for U.S. foreign policy to be sensitive to moral considerations (Carter with human rights, Obama in abandoning Bush’s torture regime) and both appointed “teams of rivals” that contained some impressively large egos. Carter’s foreign policy goals were certainly ambitious (SALT II, the Panama Canal treaty, Middle East peace, advancing human rights, strengthening NATO, etc.), but he tried to do too much and was not good at delegating responsibility.  Carter was by nature and training an engineer; instead of captaining the ship of state from the bridge, he was all too eager to dive down into the engine room and tinker with the machinery. If Obama follows the Carter model too closely, he could end up pursuing the right goals yet fail to accomplish most of them.

Or maybe he’s Clinton redux?

Obama is cool and disciplined in ways that Bill Clinton clearly wasn’t, but it’s easy to see certain parallels, too. Both became President at a young age, with abundant energy and an apparent zest for governing. Both are cerebral, curious, effortlessly articulate, and have remarkable political gifts.  Moreover, each has a certain ruthlessness as well, as demonstrated by their willingness to toss supporters over the side if they become liabilities. (This is not such a bad quality in a president, by the way). And Obama has reappointed a lot of Clinton’s foreign policy team and made the former first lady his secretary of state.  

The obvious danger is that we also get Bill Clinton’s erratic international activism along with it. In other words, you start with a long list of global problems (Iran, Iraq, Israel-Palestine Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, non-proliferation, the drug war, global warming, China’s rise, Sudan, Somalia, Burma, swine flu, Doha, etc.) and assume that American leadership is “indispensable” for solving them, but without a clear set of priorities.  Clinton had the good sense not to throw a lot of resources at all these problems (e.g., he ignored the neoconservatives when they started beating the war drums on Iraq), but his achievements were pretty paltry when measured against his ambitions and his raw political talent.

Obama’s first 100 days is worrisome in that regard: he’s already launched new initiatives on Guantanamo, arms control, the two-state solution, Iran, Iraq, Af-Pak, Russia, and Cuba, while pushing through unprecedented measures to reverse the economic meltdown AND lining up the ducks for several major domestic initiatives too. And while he’s trying to lower his sights in some areas (e.g., Iraq), he’s deepening the U.S. commitment in some decidedly unpromising areas (e.g., Afghanistan). It’s tempting to use the honeymoon period and take advantage of Democratic control in Congress, but moving this quickly also increases the risk of mistakes, or just simply policy overload. As former Clinton advisor William Galston told Time’s Joe Klein:

If he’s right, our traditional notion of the limits of the possible — the idea that Washington can only handle so much at one time — will be blown to smithereens. If he’s wrong, he may be cruising for a bruising on a lot of things.”

Of course, Obama will end up charting his own course, making his own mistakes, and (I hope) achieving his own triumphs. But if he’s interested in historical lessons or role models, he shouldn’t let the depths to which the GOP has recently sunk prevent him from pondering the lessons of some earlier Republican administrations (and not just Lincoln). The 37th President was essentially a realist — at least where foreign policy was concerned — and Obama could do a lot worse.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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