Obama’s learning curve

Am I the only person who was struck by the almost complete absence of discussion of foreign policy issues in Peter Baker’s article "Education of a President" in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine? I’m not knocking Baker, who clearly talked to plenty of people and had a lengthy conversation with Obama himself. What is striking ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Am I the only person who was struck by the almost complete absence of discussion of foreign policy issues in Peter Baker's article "Education of a President" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine?

I'm not knocking Baker, who clearly talked to plenty of people and had a lengthy conversation with Obama himself. What is striking is how the various insiders he interviewed -- including the president -- seem to be focusing primarily on domestic issues and on the usual inside-the-Beltway matters of partisan politics.  

At one level that makes sense, insofar as the state of the U.S. economy is undoubtedly the most important factor shaping their political fortunes. Moreover, Obama and his team clearly have to worry about what the GOP (aka "Grand Obstructionist Party") will do after November. With less than a month to go before the mid-terms, a certain preoccupation with domestic issues and partisan politics is to be expected. And it's not as if they have a lot of foreign policy accomplishments to crow about.

Am I the only person who was struck by the almost complete absence of discussion of foreign policy issues in Peter Baker’s article "Education of a President" in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine?

I’m not knocking Baker, who clearly talked to plenty of people and had a lengthy conversation with Obama himself. What is striking is how the various insiders he interviewed — including the president — seem to be focusing primarily on domestic issues and on the usual inside-the-Beltway matters of partisan politics.  

At one level that makes sense, insofar as the state of the U.S. economy is undoubtedly the most important factor shaping their political fortunes. Moreover, Obama and his team clearly have to worry about what the GOP (aka "Grand Obstructionist Party") will do after November. With less than a month to go before the mid-terms, a certain preoccupation with domestic issues and partisan politics is to be expected. And it’s not as if they have a lot of foreign policy accomplishments to crow about.

Nonetheless, I would love to know what Obama and his team have learned about foreign policy in the months since he took the oath of office. Which initial preconceptions does the president now question? Which members of his team have worked out well, and whose judgment has he learned not to trust? Ditto for the foreign leaders with whom he’s dealt: whose stock has risen, and whose has fallen? Is Bob Woodward’s portrait of simmering civil-military tensions even partly accurate (I’d say it is), and how does Obama plan to deal with it going forward? Which international problems now loom larger in his mind, and which issues does he think ought to get less attention?

Other presidents facing this sort of sophomore slump have often made significant shifts in their foreign policy priorities, and sometimes with considerable success. Bill Clinton stumbled badly in his first two years (remember the debacle in Somalia, and the rift with Japan?), but replaced some key people and gradually found his footing. George W. Bush blundered badly throughout his first term, but did a bit better once he ditched Rumsfeld and most of the neocons. So I hope Baker returns to the subject at some point in the future, but with an eye toward the education that Obama has been getting in the foreign policy domain. 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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