Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama’s failed foreign policy strategy

I agree with Peter Beinart’s basic conclusion that the Obama administration’s foreign policy is unsuccessful, but I think his description of what would have made it successful is wildly off the mark, and would have landed the administration in an even worse position than it has played itself into. Beinart argues that the administration has ...

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

I agree with Peter Beinart's basic conclusion that the Obama administration's foreign policy is unsuccessful, but I think his description of what would have made it successful is wildly off the mark, and would have landed the administration in an even worse position than it has played itself into.

Beinart argues that the administration has failed because of a lack of "fresh strategic thinking," and a foreign policy team that is too establishment. But the analysis operates in a vacuum where a thinly-credentialed president would pay no political price for departures from establishment thinking. Beinart would bring to Obama's foreign policy the very mistake that has been so politically costly to the president domestically: misreading his election victory as a clarion call for dramatically different policies.

Candidate Obama had one big departure from the establishment foreign policy idea: end the Iraq war. It was the making of his presidential candidacy, and it has driven the administration's agenda. In order to fend off attacks that he is soft on national security, candidate Obama took a hard line on Afghanistan. Emphasizing that the Bush administration had turned its attention from "the good war" because of Iraq allowed candidate Obama to sound tough while still being against the war in Iraq. It was shrewd politics, but bad policy.

I agree with Peter Beinart’s basic conclusion that the Obama administration’s foreign policy is unsuccessful, but I think his description of what would have made it successful is wildly off the mark, and would have landed the administration in an even worse position than it has played itself into.

Beinart argues that the administration has failed because of a lack of "fresh strategic thinking," and a foreign policy team that is too establishment. But the analysis operates in a vacuum where a thinly-credentialed president would pay no political price for departures from establishment thinking. Beinart would bring to Obama’s foreign policy the very mistake that has been so politically costly to the president domestically: misreading his election victory as a clarion call for dramatically different policies.

Candidate Obama had one big departure from the establishment foreign policy idea: end the Iraq war. It was the making of his presidential candidacy, and it has driven the administration’s agenda. In order to fend off attacks that he is soft on national security, candidate Obama took a hard line on Afghanistan. Emphasizing that the Bush administration had turned its attention from "the good war" because of Iraq allowed candidate Obama to sound tough while still being against the war in Iraq. It was shrewd politics, but bad policy.

It also illustrates why I think the administration’s foreign policy is unsuccessful:

  • A failure to understand the strategic importance of seeing the Iraq war through to a successful conclusion.
  • A false equivalence between what could be achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • An inattention to risk mitigation measures (such as what we would do if Iraq’s timeline didn’t match our drawdown or the Karzai administration proved an inadequate partner for achieving our aims).
  • A belief that enemies will accept our characterization of our actions (the "responsible drawdown" in Iraq, for example) rather than drive up the costs of our choices.

These are basic strategic errors, not the type of thing one needs to be outside the foreign policy establishment to appreciate.

Moreover, the people Beinart cites as mistakes to leave out are hardly dramatic departures from the establishment. I like and admire Ken Pollack and Mike O’Hanlon. O’Hanlon is the best defense analyst in the country and Pollack understood both the importance and the risks associated with Iraq more clearly and earlier than anyone. The administration — any administration — would undoubtedly be stronger with their talents. They were both redlined because they supported the Iraq surge, and expressed the opinion that it was succeeding even while candidate and then President Obama insisted it was not. Which is one more reason the administration’s foreign policy isn’t more successful: they aren’t listening to people who want them to succeed but disagree with their policies.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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