Stephen M. Walt

“Ain’t That Tough Enough?”

I’m in Paris to give a lecture on Obama’s foreign policy after one year, and I can report that 1) it’s cold, 2) it’s beautiful, and 3) there’s some disappointment with Obama’s (lack of) foreign-policy achievements over here.  I base that last conclusion on the conversation at a dinner I attended last night, which included ...

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I’m in Paris to give a lecture on Obama’s foreign policy after one year, and I can report that 1) it’s cold, 2) it’s beautiful, and 3) there’s some disappointment with Obama’s (lack of) foreign-policy achievements over here.  I base that last conclusion on the conversation at a dinner I attended last night, which included a number of diplomats and foreign policy experts.  The sample size is minuscule and there’s probably selection effects at work, so take that inference with a few grains of salt.

Meanwhile, I see from the International Herald Tribune that we’re having one of those silly discussions about whether a Democratic president — in this case, Obama — is “tough” enough to handle the job.   Helene Cooper points out the Democrats have faced this line of criticism ever since Kennedy, and she quotes a bunch of the usual suspects who opine about Obama’s need to do something nasty to someone to show how “tough” he really is.

My question is: what exactly do we mean by “tough”?  If the point is that Obama needs to show that adversaries (including opponents at home) will pay a price for trying to thwart him, then I get that. Being too eager to compromise and too reluctant to hit back just encourages opponents to dig in their heels, and makes it harder to achieve your objectives over time.

But in most of these discussions, “toughness” is either conceived as purely rhetorical posturing (i.e., like whether he’s using the phrase “war on terror”), or it is simply equated with more hawkish policies.  In particular, “toughness” is increasingly seen as demonstrating a willingness to use force: a president shows he’s “tough” when he’s willing to order Americans to kill other people.  Ideally, you want to be going after obvious bad guys, but if it’s all about image, then doing anything that involves explosions may be good enough.

Of course, on this score Obama should be in no danger: he’s increased the number of drone strikes against suspected terrorists, escalated the war in Afghanistan, and pushed Pakistan to launch offensives against Islamic extremists on its own soil.  As the Fabulous Thunderbirds (the blues group, not the Air Force exhibition flying group) once sang, “Ain’t That Tough Enough?”

I think this is also a pretty silly way to define “toughness.”  A better definition would be to show resolution in the face of adversity, to persist in the right course of action even in the face of obstacles.  Those obstacles, by the way, would include critics from the GOP or Fox News, as well as the inevitable setbacks that accompany any ambitious policy initiative.

And then there’s the question of whether one is showing resolution in defense of smart policies, or just stubbornly refusing to admit that one’s original decision was wrong.  George W. Bush liked to portray his leadership style as “decisive,” and “determined” and “tough;” the problem was that he clung donkey-like to a lot of boneheaded decisions.  By contrast, the much-maligned Jimmy Carter — to whom Obama is now being invidiously compared — was tough and stubborn in pushing for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and his resolution in the face of many obstacles played a key role in bringing it about.

The point is that you can be tough without being hawkish, and that’s usually preferable to the mindless militarism that most politicians adopt to show their faux “toughness.” And that’s why it’s much more important that a president be smart and strategic and able to identify the right policy choices, and not worry very much about whether he’s being sufficient “tough” to satisfy his critics.  And if Obama tries to base his foreign policy on proving to the GOP he meets their definition of “tough,” he’ll end up exactly where the GOP’s former standard-bearer did.

AFP/Getty Images

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

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