Same Old Barack Obama

Don't be fooled by the Iraq airstrikes. He's the risk-averse president he's always been -- and that should be just fine by us.

Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images
Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images

Think U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent decision — welcome as it is — to strike the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq represents a fundamental shift in his risk-averse foreign policy? Convinced that the leader whose critics blast him for leading behind is now — with the 800-plus days that remain in his presidency — on the verge of becoming the risk-ready leader you always wanted him to be? 

Lie down and take a deep breath until the feeling passes. More than likely, Obama is going to remain the Goldilocks president he’s been, fashioning policies (see Syria, Iraq, and Gaza) that look for that elusive middle ground between what’s too hot and too cold.

But how can we be so certain? During the course of their leadership at the helm of the country the best presidents learn, adjust, and adapt from their mistakes. And there’s plenty of time left in his presidency. Maybe IS is Obama’s cosmic wake-up call? Perhaps in its skill, cruelty, and sheer megalomaniacal ambitions, IS represents a truly lethal global challenge akin to that described in Yeats’s poem "The Second Coming": "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" Indeed, since the one area where Obama has been truly risk-ready is counterterrorism and the protection of the homeland, maybe, just maybe, these limited airstrikes — the ones the president acknowledged could last for months — are the beginning of a redefining moment in Obama’s Middle East foreign policy. And perhaps, having broken the ceiling on military action, he can now be more assertive in his foreign policy.

But I don’t think so. Here are the most obvious reasons why.

Obama himself
A great many of the president’s critics and fans hammer or praise the fact that not only did he teach the law (and was good at it), but that the way he reasons things out — indeed, his approach to life — is based on careful deliberation, rigorous application of logic, and a structured thinking things through and measuring out all conceivable scenarios. His critics believe this leads to vacillation and weakness; his boosters argue that it produces a much-needed careful deliberation. 

Having been an intelligence analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) for a number of years, I’d also say he’d make a great intel guy, too. Look at his Aug. 8 interview with Tom Friedman. Obama thinks not just in terms of possibilities (the diplomat’s world) but probabilities (the analyst’s domain). There’s nuance and balance in his analysis. The problem, of course, is that really good analysis almost always leads to paralysis of action, or at least to ruling out the more risky and ambitious of options. This almost certainly happened in the case of Obama’s refusal to militarize the U.S. role in Syria by either arming opposition groups or directly applying U.S. military power. The first, he told Friedman, would have been ineffectual; and the second he probably assumed would be a key to an empty room without a clear end game and a major U.S. commitment.

The bottom line: Obama’s own nature is his biggest red line against bold, precipitous action and grand ambition. And unlike the one he drew on Syria’s chemical weapons, it’s unlikely to turn pink. Risk aversion will continue to be his guiding North Star.

The Libya precedent
The Friedman interview revealed another important reason why Obama’s risk aversion is likely to endure. The president raised the issue about the lack of follow-up to help Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow. "Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions…. So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’"

Even though he doesn’t come out and say it, you get the sense that if there was a chance to do it over again he’d be much more engaged. But there’s another way to read the president’s comment, too. And that’s this: Military action is only one step in a complex process that requires a huge investment to create a relatively stable and functional transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. And Obama understands that hitting the Islamic State (IS), as necessary as it may be, is hardly a panacea for rebuilding the new Iraq. More to the point, that’s not America’s job. And Obama isn’t going to correct his Libya mistake by getting bogged down in nation-building in Iraq.

The Iraq tar baby
And that brings us to the major reason Obama isn’t going to reverse his fundamentally risk-averse nature in this dysfunctional region. To put it simply, Obama has no interest in resuming his predecessor’s trillion-dollar social science project in Iraq. As extricator-in-chief, he’s determined to get America out of profitless wars, not into new ones. His personal opposition to the 2003 war, his own analysis, his political commitment to getting out of Iraq, and the public’s desire to do so all impel him not to change course. Could he add more special operators, continue air and missile strikes, and back the Kurds? Sure. Will he recommit ground forces? No. And that means that IS’s future in Iraq will depend on the degree to which a new Iraqi government can be constituted that reflect the needs of all sectarian groups, a functional can be army rebuilt along those lines, and whether Iraqi Sunnis can be enfranchised and deny IS the Iraqi Sunni support partly responsible for its rise. Yesterday’s power play by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is another cautionary tale in how hard this is going to be.

It’s (still) a cruel and unforgiving world
Obama’s inherent risk aversion partly explains his cautious foreign policy. Add in the bad hand he inherited and his focus on domestic priorities (see the middle class, not the Middle East) and you come pretty close to explaining his persisting caution abroad. But there’s a major missing piece — the politically inconvenient fact that his critics refuse to acknowledge: The world is a pretty cruel and unforgiving place. It’s beset more by tough challenges and problems without solutions than it is by slam-dunk opportunities. Ukraine, Syria, the Arab spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that’s a pretty fun-filled list. Add the fact that the nature of those challenges is simply no longer quite as amenable to the conventional application of American military, political, and diplomatic power as it used to be, and you have a pretty nasty witches’ brew. Alongside experiments in nation-building (see the Arab spring), asymmetrical wars (Afghanistan), historic conflicts (Israel and Palestine), and problems without neat solutions (see Syria/Iraq), there seems to be little room at the inn for bold American-made fixes.

Nor, as a consequence, is there as much latitude for a president to play the modern-day foreign-policy hero. Looking for some grand foreign-policy initiative? A Marshall Plan, maybe a Berlin airlift? How about heroic diplomacy during a Cuban missile crisis? Or a secret initiative to China? Or maybe a successful Camp David peace summit? It’s hard to imagine an opportunity today of such heroic caliber. Indeed, Obama may already have delivered his. My guess is that if you asked most Americans what the most consequential foreign-policy act of this administration was, they’d say the killing of Osama bin Laden. It required risk, it was critically important, and it worked.

All of this argues for caution and continuity in Obama’s foreign policy, rather than boldness and radical change. There may be surprises still before the end of 2016. Another run at Israeli-Palestinian peace, perhaps? A new phase in the Ukraine crisis? A major IS terror attack against the United States in Europe, the region, or even here at home? But none of these affords easy opportunities to play the hero’s role.

The primary fault in this unhappy story isn’t Obama’s, nor does it lie in the stars. For an already risk-averse president whose time clock is quickly ticking down, getting big things done is just plain hard and always very rare, particularly abroad. Robert Penn Warren had it right. History, like nature, rarely jumps, and when it does, it usually jumps backwards. Obama may not like it, but he’s accepted it. There can always be surprises. But it’s getting late in the game, and as the president himself acknowledged: look for singles and doubles. They’re a lot easier to hit than home runs.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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