Stephen M. Walt

Does Obama Lack ‘Ambition’ to Shape the World?

This week, the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon posted a sharp critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, accusing his administration of "lack of ambition." And that was before Obama’s tepid response to the brutal military crackdown in Egypt. Here’s Krepon’s lede: Remember when American presidents set out to do big things in the world? That was ...

Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

This week, the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon posted a sharp critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, accusing his administration of "lack of ambition." And that was before Obama’s tepid response to the brutal military crackdown in Egypt. Here’s Krepon’s lede:

Remember when American presidents set out to do big things in the world?

That was when denizens of the Oval Office had one powerful attribute: ambition. And that’s exactly what President Barack Obama is lacking today: a desire to shape world events to America’s liking, and a willingness to take big risks to make that happen.

No wonder he is making little progress on the enormous foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States. The less ambition an administration has, the harder achieving anything becomes.

Krepon is a smart, sensible guy, and getting to know him was one of the high points of the year I spent at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace back in the 1980s. He has written a lot of wise things over the years, and he is certainly correct that Obama’s foreign-policy team can claim few real successes over the past five-plus years.

But is the problem really "lack of ambition"? After all, consider some of the goals that Obama has set forth since becoming president. He was going to get a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was going to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. He greatly expanded the U.S. effort to kill suspected terrorists with drones and special operations forces, thereby inserting the United States directly into the internal politics of several unstable countries. He also pledged to lead the world to a new climate change agreement and take big steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. And he was going to "reset" with Russia, "pivot" to Asia, nurture the democratic roots of the "Arab spring," and rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward greater emphasis on "development and diplomacy." Or so he and his minions said.

Sounds pretty darn ambitious to me. The real problem is that this laundry list is wholly emblematic of the exceptionalist, "America must lead the world" vision that has informed U.S. foreign policy for decades. In particular, Obama hasn’t challenged any of the entrenched interests and worldviews that continue to drive U.S. engagement in the world. The United States may be getting out of Afghanistan, but five years later than it should have. Americans still think their security depends on having military bases all over the world and that they won’t be safe if their country can’t determine who governs every little strategic backwater on the planet. Washington still sees itself as a credible broker of Middle East peace, despite 30 years of failure. The United States still thinks it can coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear enrichment program, even though America has been trying to do that for over a decade without success. And so on.

Krepon is right that Obama hasn’t plunged into foolish crusades in places like Syria, and I share his dismay at Obama’s halfhearted response to the recent presidential election in Iran. Among other things, if Obama is serious about negotiating with Iran, he needs to start preparing the American people and the various yahoos in Congress for a deal and explain what they can realistically expect (and what they can’t). But the real problem isn’t lack of ambition; it’s that Obama is pursuing some misguided goals, and he’s doing it with a foreign-policy establishment that seems to become less effective with each passing year.

Krepon’s article also paints an overly upbeat portrait of what American engagement can produce. True, ambitious U.S. diplomacy has sometimes accomplished positive and lasting ends. Between 1945 and 1950, for example, the United States helped lay the groundwork for NATO, the United Nations, and a panoply of enduring international institutions, while simultaneously developing and implementing the strategy of containment that eventually won the Cold War. Similarly, George H.W. Bush’s administration did a good job managing the Soviet collapse and German reunification and handled the 1991 Gulf War well (after some initial stumbles).

But these achievements have to be balanced against some notable failures: the damaging coups the United States helped engineer in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and the Dominican Republic (1965), as well as its long, insensitive, and tragic involvement in Indochina. And surely it was ambitious of George W. Bush to think he could transform the entire Middle East at the point of a gun, a lamebrained idea that cost the United States more than $2 trillion and thousands of dead soldiers, cost the Iraqi people even more, and ended up enhancing Iranian influence.

Lastly, Krepon’s piece also reflects the common Washington belief that American national security is precarious, as in his statement that the United States faces "enormous foreign policy and national security challenges." As I’ve written before, most of these supposed "challenges" are simply burdens the U.S. government has chosen to take on, and most of them have scant effect on the life expectancy or prosperity of Americans at home. Great powers always tend to define their interests expansively, and as the world’s most powerful country, the United States has decided that everything everywhere somehow matters to it because one can at least conjure up some hypothetical reason why an event in, say, Syria or Somalia or Tadzhikistan, might somehow rebound back on American soil. That’s probably true in a handful of instances, but trying to control everything everywhere increases the opposition the United States faces and in most cases isn’t cost-effective. The truth is that most of those "foreign-policy challenges" are acts of philanthropy undertaken on behalf of various U.S. "allies," rather than making a direct contribution to the security of the 50 states. I think Obama may have understood that; he just didn’t do much to change the prevailing mindset.

My point is simple: It is perfectly fine for presidents to be ambitious, but lofty ideals need to be tempered by a sense of political realism. Otherwise, you get either vague speeches that never seem to lead anywhere or foolish crusades that do far more harm than good.

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

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