Stephen M. Walt

In-house infighting: Walt vs. Drezner vs. Walt vs. Drezner

I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I’m leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don’t get a life. So I’m a bit ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I’m leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don’t get a life. So I’m a bit reluctant to respond to Dan Drezner’s reaction to my comment on his upbeat appraisal of Obama’s foreign policy. If we’re not careful, this response will provoke another rebuttal, leading to a follow-up rejoinder, then to a vigorous reply, followed by a stinging rebuke … and before long you will all be asleep.

That said, Dan raises a good point at the end of his post, asking about the relationship between my comments about Obama’s foreign policy and my recent article in The National Interest. His basic point is that I blamed Obama for his lack of success in my FP piece, whereas in the TNI article I attribute this to deeper structural forces.

I don’t think there’s much of a contradiction here at all. One can fail (or, more charitably, not achieve success), in at least one of two ways. One source of failure is making bad policy choices; a second source is simply that the task was just too hard given the specific circumstances at hand. (Contrary to what Americans often think, not every problem has an easy solution).

In this case, lack of success is attributable to both problems, depending to a large degree on which issues you’re considering. I’ve argued repeatedly since 2009 that Obama faced enormous constraints in several areas — consistent with my TNI piece — and that his foreign policy "to do" list contained an array of hard problems that were likely to defy easy solution. Accordingly, I’ve argued that he had to be careful not to get overcommitted or distracted by peripheral problems. His lack of success on climate change, global trade, North Korea, or Iraq falls into this category: there just wasn’t a magic bullet to aim at those targets. By contrast, his failures on Israel-Palestine or AfPak, and the broad deterioration of the U.S. image in the Arab/Islamic world, are due more to specific choices he made (greatly exacerbated by domestic political constraints both here in the United States and in the relevant foreign countries). And then there are cases like Libya where it’s just too soon to tell.

In short, I think Obama was dealt a horrible hand to play, and at a time when broad forces were making it much harder for the United States to wield reliable influence on an array of tough problems. I think he’s played some of his cards well (e.g., in East Asia), but he’s also misplayed a few rather badly. And the result, as I said in my original piece, is a foreign policy record that doesn’t have a lot of meaningful successes so far. It could have been worse, of course (see under: George W. Bush), but it could have been better too.

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

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