An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Carter Syndrome

Barack Obama might yet revolutionize America's foreign policy. But if he can't reconcile his inner Thomas Jefferson with his inner Woodrow Wilson, the 44th president could end up like No. 39. 


Neither a cold-blooded realist nor a bleeding-heart idealist, Barack Obama has a split personality when it comes to foreign policy. So do most U.S. presidents, of course, and the ideas that inspire this one have a long history at the core of the American political tradition. In the past, such ideas have served the country well. But the conflicting impulses influencing how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart -- and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter.

Neither a cold-blooded realist nor a bleeding-heart idealist, Barack Obama has a split personality when it comes to foreign policy. So do most U.S. presidents, of course, and the ideas that inspire this one have a long history at the core of the American political tradition. In the past, such ideas have served the country well. But the conflicting impulses influencing how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart — and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter.

Obama’s long deliberation over the war in Afghanistan is a case study in presidential schizophrenia: After 94 days of internal discussion and debate, he ended up splitting the difference — rushing in more troops as his generals wanted, while calling for their departure to begin in July 2011 as his liberal base demanded. It was a sober compromise that suggests a man struggling to reconcile his worldview with the weight of inherited problems. Like many of his predecessors, Obama is not only buffeted by strong political headwinds, but also pulled in opposing directions by two of the major schools of thought that have guided American foreign-policy debates since colonial times.

In general, U.S. presidents see the world through the eyes of four giants: Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Hamiltonians share the first Treasury secretary’s belief that a strong national government and a strong military should pursue a realist global policy and that the government can and should promote economic development and the interests of American business at home and abroad. Wilsonians agree with Hamiltonians on the need for a global foreign policy, but see the promotion of democracy and human rights as the core elements of American grand strategy. Jeffersonians dissent from this globalist consensus; they want the United States to minimize its commitments and, as much as possible, dismantle the national-security state. Jacksonians are today’s Fox News watchers. They are populists suspicious of Hamiltonian business links, Wilsonian do-gooding, and Jeffersonian weakness.

Moderate Republicans tend to be Hamiltonians. Move right toward the Sarah Palin range of the party and the Jacksonian influence grows. Centrist Democrats tend to be interventionist-minded Wilsonians, while on the left and the dovish side they are increasingly Jeffersonian, more interested in improving American democracy at home than exporting it abroad.

Some presidents build coalitions; others stay close to one favorite school. As the Cold War ended, George H.W. Bush’s administration steered a largely Hamiltonian course, and many of those Hamiltonians later dissented from his son’s war in Iraq. Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s mixed Hamiltonian and Wilsonian tendencies. This dichotomy resulted in bitter administration infighting when those ideologies came into conflict — over humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and Rwanda, for example, and again over the relative weight to be given to human rights and trade in U.S. relations with China.

More recently, George W. Bush’s presidency was defined by an effort to bring Jacksonians and Wilsonians into a coalition; the political failure of Bush’s ambitious approach created the context that made the Obama presidency possible.

Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those rare and electrifying moments that waken Jacksonian America and focus its attention on the international arena. The U.S. homeland was not only under attack, it was under attack by an international conspiracy of terrorists who engaged in what Jacksonians consider dishonorable warfare: targeting civilians. Jacksonian attitudes toward war were shaped by generations of conflict with Native American peoples across the United States and before that by centuries of border conflict in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Against "honorable" enemies who observe the laws of war, one is obliged to fight fair; those who disregard the rules must be hunted down and killed, regardless of technical niceties.

When the United States is attacked, Jacksonians demand action; they leave strategy to the national leadership. But Bush’s tough-minded Jacksonian response to 9/11 — invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban government that gave safe haven to the plotters — gave way to what appeared to be Wilsonian meddling in Iraq. Originally, Bush’s argument for overthrowing Saddam Hussein rested on two charges that resonated powerfully with Jacksonians: Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction, and he had close links with al Qaeda. But the war dragged on, and as Hussein’s fabled hoards of WMD failed to appear and the links between Iraq and al Qaeda failed to emerge, Bush shifted to a Wilsonian rationale. This was no longer a war of defense against a pending threat or a war of retaliation; it was a war to establish democracy, first in Iraq and then throughout the region. Nation-building and democracy-spreading became the cornerstones of the administration’s Middle East policy.

Bush could not have developed a strategy better calculated to dissolve his political support at home. Jacksonians historically have little sympathy for expensive and risky democracy-promoting ventures abroad. They generally opposed the humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti during the Clinton years; they did not and do not think American young people should die and American treasure should be scattered to spread democracy or protect human rights overseas. Paradoxically, Jacksonians also opposed "cut and run" options to end the war in Iraq even as they lost faith in both Bush and the Republican Party; they don’t like wars for democracy, but they also don’t want to see the United States lose once troops and the national honor have been committed. In Bush’s last year in office, a standoff ensued: The Democratic congressional majorities were powerless to force change in his Iraq strategy and Bush remained free to increase U.S. troop levels, yet the war itself and Bush’s rationale for it remained deeply unpopular.

Enter Obama. An early and consistent opponent of the Iraq war, Obama was able to bring together the elements of the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy base who were most profoundly opposed to (and horrified by) Bush’s policy. Obama made opposition to the Iraq war a centerpiece of his eloquent campaign, drawing on arguments that echoed U.S. anti-war movements all the way back to Henry David Thoreau’s opposition to the Mexican-American War.
Like Carter in the 1970s, Obama comes from the old-fashioned Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic Party, and the strategic goal of his foreign policy is to reduce America’s costs and risks overseas by limiting U.S. commitments wherever possible. He’s a believer in the notion that the United States can best spread democracy and support peace by becoming an example of democracy at home and moderation abroad. More than this, Jeffersonians such as Obama think oversize commitments abroad undermine American democracy at home. Large military budgets divert resources from pressing domestic needs; close association with corrupt and tyrannical foreign regimes involves the United States in dirty and cynical alliances; the swelling national-security state threatens civil liberties and leads to powerful pro-war, pro-engagement lobbies among corporations nourished on grossly swollen federal defense budgets.

While Bush argued that the only possible response to the 9/11 attacks was to deepen America’s military and political commitments in the Middle East, Obama initially sought to enhance America’s security by reducing those commitments and toning down aspects of U.S. Middle East policy, such as support for Israel, that foment hostility and suspicion in the region. He seeks to pull U.S. power back from the borderlands of Russia, reducing the risk of conflict with Moscow. In Latin America, he has so far behaved with scrupulous caution and, clearly, is hoping to normalize relations with Cuba while avoiding collisions with the "Bolivarian" states of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Obama seeks a quiet world in order to focus his efforts on domestic reform — and to create conditions that would allow him to dismantle some of the national-security state inherited from the Cold War and given new life and vigor after 9/11. Preferring disarmament agreements to military buildups and hoping to substitute regional balance-of-power arrangements for massive unilateral U.S. force commitments all over the globe, the president wishes ultimately for an orderly world in which burdens are shared and the military power of the United States is a less prominent feature on the international scene.

While Wilsonians believe that no lasting stability is possible in a world filled with dictatorships, Jeffersonians like Obama argue that even bad regimes can be orderly international citizens if the incentives are properly aligned. Syria and Iran don’t need to become democratic states for the United States to reach long-term, mutually beneficial arrangements with them. And it is North Korea’s policies, not the character of its regime, that pose a threat to the Pacific region.

At this strategic level, Obama’s foreign policy looks a little bit like that of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In Afghanistan and Iraq, he hopes to extract U.S. forces from costly wars by the contemporary equivalent of the "Vietnamization" policy of the Nixon years. He looks to achieve an opening with Iran comparable to Nixon’s rapprochement with communist China. Just as Nixon established a constructive relationship with China despite the radical "Red Guard" domestic policies Chinese leader Mao Zedong was pursuing at the time, Obama does not see ideological conflict as necessarily leading to poor strategic relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Just as Nixon and Kissinger sought to divert international attention from their retreat in Indochina by razzle-dazzle global diplomacy that placed Washington at the center of world politics even as it reduced its force posture, so too the Obama administration hopes to use the president’s global popularity to cover a strategic withdrawal from the exposed position in the Middle East that it inherited from the Bush administration.

This is both an ambitious and an attractive vision. Success would reduce the level of international tension even as the United States scales back its commitments. The United States would remain, by far, the dominant military power in the world, but it would sustain this role with significantly fewer demands on its resources and less danger of war.

Yet as Obama is already discovering, any president attempting such a Jeffersonian grand strategy in the 21st century faces many challenges. In the 19th-century heyday of Jeffersonian foreign policy in American politics, it was easier for U.S. presidents to limit the country’s commitments. Britain played a global role similar to that of the United States today, providing a stable security environment and promoting international trade and investment. Cruising as a free rider in the British world system allowed Americans to reap the benefits of Britain’s world order without paying its costs.

As British power waned in the 20th century, Americans faced starker choices. With the British Empire no longer able to provide political and economic security worldwide, the United States had to choose between replacing Britain as the linchpin of world order with all the headaches that entailed or going about its business in a disorderly world. In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans gave this latter course a try; the rapid-fire series of catastrophes — the Great Depression, World War II, Stalin’s bid for Eurasian hegemony — convinced virtually all policymakers that the first course, risky and expensive as it proved, was the lesser of the two evils.

Indeed, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first two terms, the United States pursued essentially Jeffersonian policies in Europe and Asia, avoiding confrontations with Germany and Japan. The result was the bloodiest war in world history, not a stable condominium of satisfied powers. Since that time, Jeffersonians have had to come to terms with the vast set of interlocking political, economic, and military commitments that bind the United States to its role in the postwar era. Jeffersonian instincts call for pruning these commitments back, but it is not always easy to know where to cut.

The other schools are generally skeptical about reducing American commitments. Wilsonians interpret Jeffersonian restraint as moral cowardice. Why, they ask, did Obama refuse to meet the sainted Dalai Lama on his way to kowtow to the dictators in Beijing? Jacksonians think it is cowardice pure and simple. And why not stand up to Iran? Hamiltonians may agree with Jeffersonian restraint in particular cases — they don’t want to occupy Darfur either — but sooner or later they attack Jeffersonians for failing to develop and project sufficient American power in a dangerous world. Moreover, Hamiltonians generally favor free trade and a strong dollar policy; in current circumstances Hamiltonians are also pushing fiscal restraint. Obama will not willingly move far or fast enough to keep them happy.

The widespread criticism of Obama’s extended Afghanistan deliberations is a case in point. To a Jeffersonian president, war is a grave matter and such an undesirable course that it should only be entered into with the greatest deliberation and caution; war is truly a last resort, and the costs of rash commitments are more troubling than the costs of debate and delay. Hamiltonians would be more concerned with executing the decision swiftly and with hiding from other powers any impression of division among American counsels. But Obama found harsh critics on all sides: Wilsonians recoiled from the evident willingness of the president to abandon human rights or political objectives to settle the war. Jacksonians did not understand what, other than cowardice or "dithering," could account for his reluctance to support the professional military recommendation. And the most purist of the Jeffersonians — neoisolationists on both left and right — turned on Obama as a sellout. Jeffersonian foreign policy is no bed of roses.

In recent history, Jeffersonian foreign policy has often faced attacks from all the other schools of thought. Kissinger’s policy of détente was blasted on the right by conservative Republicans who wanted a stronger stand against communism and on the left by human rights Democrats who hated the cynical regional alliances the Nixon Doctrine involved (with the shah of Iran, for example). Carter faced many of the same problems, and the image of weakness and indecision that helped doom his 1980 run for re-election is a perennial problem for Jeffersonian presidents. Obama will have to leap over these hurdles now, too.

It is not only Americans who will challenge the new American foreign policy. Will Russia and Iran respond to Obama’s conciliatory approach with reciprocal concessions — or, emboldened by what they interpret as American weakness and faltering willpower, will they keep pushing forward? Will the president’s outreach to the moderate majority of Muslims around the world open an era of better understanding, or will the violent minority launch new attacks that undercut the president’s standing at home? Will the president’s inability to deliver all the Israeli concessions Arabs would like erode his credibility and contribute to even deeper levels of cynicism and alienation across the Middle East? Can the president execute an orderly reduction in the U.S. military stake in Iraq and Afghanistan without having hostile forces fill the power vacuum? Will Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez be so impressed with American restraint under Obama that he moderates his own course and ceases to make anti Yanquismo a pillar of his domestic and international policy? Will other countries heed the president’s call to assume more international responsibility as the United States reduces its commitments — or will they fail to fulfill their obligations as stakeholders in the international system?

A Jeffersonian policy of restraint and withdrawal requires cooperation from many other countries, but the prospect of a lower American profile may make others less, rather than more, willing to help the United States.

There is an additional political problem for this president, one that he shares with Carter. In both cases, their basic Jeffersonian approach was balanced in part by a strong attraction to idealistic Wilsonian values and their position at the head of a Democratic Party with a distinct Wilsonian streak. A pure Jeffersonian wants to conserve the shining exceptionalism of the American democratic experience and believes that American values are rooted in U.S. history and culture and are therefore not easily exportable.

For this president, that is too narrow a view. Like Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama doesn’t just love the United States for what it is. He loves what it should — and can — be. Leadership is not the art of preserving a largely achieved democratic project; governing is the art of pushing the United States farther down the road toward the still-distant goal of fulfilling its mission and destiny.

Obama may well believe what he said in his inaugural speech — "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" — but as any president must he is already making exactly those tradeoffs. Why else refuse to meet the Dalai Lama? Why else pledge support to the corrupt regime of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan or aid Pakistan despite the dismal track record of both the civil and military arms of the Pakistani government when it comes to transparent use of U.S. resources? Did the administration not renew its efforts to build a relationship with the regime in Tehran even as peaceful democratic protesters were being tortured and raped in its jails? Is Obama not taking "incentives" to Khartoum, a regime that has for more than a decade pursued a policy in Darfur that the U.S. government has labeled genocidal?

It is hard to reconcile the transcendent Wilsonian vision of America’s future with a foreign policy based on dirty compromises with nasty regimes. If the government should use its power and resources to help the poor and the victims of injustice at home, shouldn’t it do something when people overseas face extreme injustice and extreme peril? The Obama administration cannot easily abandon a human rights agenda abroad. The contradiction between the sober and limited realism of the Jeffersonian worldview and the expansive, transformative Wilsonian agenda is likely to haunt this administration as it haunted Carter’s, most fatefully when he rejected calls to let the shah of Iran launch a brutal crackdown to remain in power. Already the Wilsonians in Obama’s camp are muttering darkly about his failure to swiftly close the Guantánamo prison camp, his fondness for government secrecy, his halfhearted support for investigating abuses of the past administration, and his failure to push harder for a cap-and-trade bill before the Copenhagen summit.

Over time, these rumblings of discontent will grow, and history will continue to throw curveballs at him. Can this president live with himself if he fails to prevent a new round of genocide in the Great Lakes region of Africa? Can he wage humanitarian war if all else fails? Can he make these tough decisions quickly and confidently when his closest advisors and his political base are deeply and hopelessly at odds?

The Jeffersonian concern with managing America’s foreign policy at the lowest possible level of risk has in the past helped presidents develop effective grand strategies, such as George Kennan’s early Cold War idea of containment and the early 19th-century Monroe Doctrine. If successful, Obama’s restructuring of American foreign policy would be as influential as these classic strategic designs.

Recent decades, however, have seen diminishing Jeffersonian influence in U.S. foreign policy. Americans today perceive problems all over the world; the Jeffersonian response often strikes people as too passive. Kennan’s modest form of containment quickly lost ground to Dean Acheson’s more muscular and militarized approach of responding to Soviet pressure by building up U.S. and allied forces in Europe and Asia. The Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente was repudiated by both the Republican and Democratic parties. Carter came into the White House hoping to end the Cold War, but by the end of his tenure he was supporting the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, increasing the defense budget, and laying the groundwork for an expanded U.S. presence in the Middle East.

In the 21st century, American presidents have a new set of questions to consider. The nature of the international system and the place of the United States in it will have to be rethought as new powers rise, old ones continue to fade, and attention shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The rapid technological development that is the hallmark of our era will reshape global society at a pace that challenges the ability of every country in the world to manage cascading, accelerating change.

With great dignity and courage, Obama has embarked on a difficult and uncertain journey. The odds, I fear, are not in his favor, and it is not yet clear that his intuitions and instincts amount to the kind of grand design that statesmen like John Quincy Adams and Henry Kissinger produced in the past. But there can be no doubt that American foreign policy requires major rethinking.

At their best, Jeffersonians provide a necessary element of caution and restraint in U.S. foreign policy, preventing what historian Paul Kennedy calls "imperial overstretch" by ensuring that America’s ends are proportionate to its means. We need this vision today more than ever: If Obama’s foreign policy collapses — whether sunk by Afghanistan or conflicts not yet foreseen — into the incoherence and reversals that ultimately marked Carter’s well-meaning but flawed approach, it will be even more difficult for future presidents to chart a prudent and cautious course through the rough seas ahead.

Walter Russell Mead is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk (New York: Knopf, 2004).

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