Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Obama’s true foreign policy dilemma is not what Tom Donnelly thinks it is

By Sean Kay Best Defense guest columnist Tom Donnelly‘s recent guest piece on Best Defense is an important contribution to thinking about America’s search for security and the ideas that drive it. But he ultimately misdiagnoses the problem. To be sure, the nation is witnessing serious failures of the Obama administration’s ability to articulate a ...

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By Sean Kay

Best Defense guest columnist

Tom Donnelly's recent guest piece on Best Defense is an important contribution to thinking about America's search for security and the ideas that drive it.

By Sean Kay

Best Defense guest columnist

Tom Donnelly‘s recent guest piece on Best Defense is an important contribution to thinking about America’s search for security and the ideas that drive it.

But he ultimately misdiagnoses the problem. To be sure, the nation is witnessing serious failures of the Obama administration’s ability to articulate a sense of purpose and vision for America’s foreign policy. Consequently, it is signaling confusion at a time when clarity is needed. In particular, President Obama seems to want to be both a liberal interventionist and a realist at the same time — which fosters uncertainty in advancing the national interest. 

One of the most important points that candidate Obama articulated in the 2008 election was a desire not only to end the war in Iraq, but to also change the mindset that got us into the war in the first place. Yet there was an inherent contradiction: His first administration was populated primarily with senior appointments, particularly Hillary Clinton, who had supported invading Iraq. America found itself soon transplanting a surge theory in Iraq — which has now been shown to have been a tactical success but a strategic failure — into Afghanistan. Then we found ourselves in an interventionist war of choice in Libya — yet how does that look now? The liberal and neoconservative pressure for another war in Syria was stymied by a realist-driven American public. The purpose of that war was to punish Syria for using chemical weapons — yet without war, a more successful outcome was attained regarding these weapons via diplomatic engagement and inspections. In Ukraine, the Obama administration has acted by advancing important principles, but also recognizing the limits of what America can achieve in a conflict backed up against a nuclear-armed Russia. 

Mr. Donnelly argues that this all reflects some growing angst of American self-doubt. Perhaps if we had maintained the loose liberal and neoconservative triumphalist consensus of "leadership" that drove American foreign and defense policy for the last 20 years, all would be fine. But it was this 20-year period that led to dramatic overstretch abroad, and underinvestment in the domestic foundations of American power at home. On the critical issues America now is grappling with — from the aftermath of invading Iraq, to the surge in Afghanistan, to overpromising eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 — realists have been right. However, to acknowledge that is to acknowledge the failure of an elite worldview that has done grave damage to the very idealistic principles that many of its liberal and neoconservative advocates sought to advance.

The American public, polling tells us, is in its most isolationist mood since World War II — and that is a direct consequence of the last 20 years of over-reach. Any president would thus need to look at this situation and see the world as it is, not as we wish it could be. Limiting America’s being pulled into peripheral wars, getting allies to assume more responsibility for their own security, diplomatic engagement with adversaries, re-thinking the advantages of containment versus regime change, focusing on areas of common interests with other great powers, and investing in the domestic foundations of American power — these are realist approaches, but are driven by a mainly liberal interventionist foreign policy team and therein lies the dilemma.

The true failure of the Obama administration has not been its lack of embrace of the prior elite vision that drove American global leadership into the ditch. Rather, it has been a failure to articulate a clear sense of purpose and priorities to the American public and work daily to build a new consensus in Congress while transforming bureaucracies, budgets, and communications to clarify new priorities. Case in point is the very necessary pivot to Asia. Even the most rudimentary of analyses shows that the structure of global power is in Asia. The Obama administration was right in setting Asia as a top priority among other important regions — with the Persian Gulf and Europe being second and third. However, the Asia pivot has been allowed to drift absent sustained senior level presence in the region, while conflicts in Ukraine and the broader Middle East understandably continue to hold attention, though these are conflicts that call out for regional allies to be in the lead. The administration has allowed its critics to define its approach as "weakness" and "retreat". If a foreign policy team will not stand up and fight politically for its principles and priorities abroad, that is indeed signaling weakness. 

America is signaling confusion precisely because the Obama administration has failed to escape the grip of 20 years of liberal and neoconservative thinking that has come to dominate Washington, D.C. Congress too has responsibility for that: Congress wants to get tough on Russia — yet where is the money that Ukraine needs? We want "action and leadership" but we also want burdensharing, and thus criticize the poorly articulated "lead from behind model" while advocating for status quo incentives that allow allies to free-ride on American power. We want to grow our economy, but where is the investment in the future of American power and competitiveness — for example, in education and trade?

Mr. Donnelly argues that the Obama administration is making the "meritocratic elite" nervous. This might well be true, especially as the Clinton "team" tries to distance themselves from their own record as part of the last 20 years of foreign-policy thinking while at the same time apparently doubling down on the ideology that drove us into interventionist fiascos. 

Meanwhile, a long line of realists who first rallied around Obama’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq have had good cause to be disillusioned, dating back at least to the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the various interventionist impulses that followed it. But it is the very elites that Mr. Donnelly points to as fretting about America who are so disconnected from the American people, who instead wisely stood up and put the brakes on yet another war in Syria a year ago, who have steadily supported restraint in dealing with Russia, and who have reasonable concern about mission creep and a new conflict in Iraq today.

So, perhaps we would be wise to worry less about the shattered self-confidence of American elites, who time and time again get major issues wrong. Instead we might focus on what Dwight Eisenhower once said: "Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America."

Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan University and Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. His new book is America’s Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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