The Irony of Obamian History
The president loves Reinhold Niebuhr. That’s not a doctrine; that’s a problem.
What have we learned about Barack Obama’s foreign policy philosophy from his series of expansive interviews with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, and the many thousands of words of subsequent exegesis? In one sense, very little. In Obama’s interpretation of the major foreign policy challenges of his presidency, events have confirmed the worldview and instincts he already had. Obama’s presentation of his approach to the world confirm he is precisely who he said he was when he first emerged as a serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008: a devotee of the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
In another sense, however, the intervening years have been clarifying. The record Obama has compiled, and the defense he has offered of it, has put into relief an error of judgment implicit in his initial self-assessment some eight years ago. In selecting Niebuhr as his lodestar, Obama was revealing that he was less interested in conducting serious foreign policy than in thinking about it. And that is precisely what his tenure as commander in chief has confirmed.
Obama’s style as a practitioner of foreign policy is one that those of us who work in academia easily recognize: a patient but somewhat pontifical world-weariness. It’s important to note that this attitude is not a consequence of being worn down by the pressures of office. It was present from the creation — or, at least, as far back as the young Chicago senator had first thought of a tilt at the presidency. From the time of his opposition to the Iraq War, Obama was never the naïve pacifist some of his more strident critics presented him as at the time. “I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein,” he made clear at the time.
Suffering no illusions is the essence of the Obama credo. What Obama calls “conventional wisdom” (another phrase beloved of professors) is usually the folly of others. It is a trap that he himself avoids. Thus he has always rolled his eyes at those who make simplistic distinctions between idealism and realism when it comes to foreign policy. (Rarely has he stopped to wonder whether there are any serious interlocutors making such simplistic distinctions in the first place.)
What that younger Obama needed was a suitably nuanced theology to fit his professorial instinct — an evolutionary leap from the excessive black-white Manichean rhetoric of the Bush years. It soon offered itself in the pages of the New York Times. In 2005, as the insurgency in Iraq reached its ugliest point, the 89-year old Arthur Schlesinger — the seasoned observer of Cycles of American History — wrote an article for that newspaper in which he urged Americans to rediscover the works of Niebuhr as a guide to the world. Schlesinger ended his article with an evocative excerpt from Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History. “If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”
Not long after, as Obama emerged as a serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, he told the New York Times that one of his favorite philosophers was Niebuhr. On the one hand, Obama claimed, Niebuhr recognized “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship, and pain.” On the other, he understood that “we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.” The future president took away from Niebuhr “the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.” He would defy these clichés. Thus he was too self-aware to reciprocate the fawning of liberal Europeans who offered him the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office, just as he surged in Afghanistan and ratcheted up the drone campaign. His acceptance speech of 2009, a meditation on the concept of just war, was peppered with Niebuhrian nuance.
The liberal-realist balancing act was harder to maintain in office but, again, this was to be expected. “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” the president’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, made clear in April 2010. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41. … You’ve got to be coldblooded about the self-interests of your nation.” Ultimately, it was a realist’s philosophical skepticism that Obama took to the Oval Office, though this was not necessarily the same thing as a realist’s appreciation of the role of power in international affairs.
So while Obama continues to bemoan the false dichotomy of realism versus idealism — and objects to being called a “fatalist” — it could also be said that he has traded off it, seeking to place himself in an abstract space somewhere both above and between those categories. “You know, traditionally, a lot of American foreign policy has been divided into the realist camp and the idealist camp,” he said in a 2015 Vox interview. “And so if you’re an idealist, you’re like Woodrow Wilson, and you’re out there with the League of Nations and imagining everybody holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ and imposing these wonderful rules that everybody’s abiding by. And if you’re a realist, then you’re supporting dictators who happen to be our friends, and you’re cutting deals and solely pursuing the self-interest of our country as narrowly defined. And I just don’t think that describes what a smart foreign policy should be.”
But for the statesman, more so the commander in chief, the real question is not whether one can articulate a cogent worldview, even one wrinkled with irony and nuance (as Niebuhr undoubtedly provides). What matters, for those charged with the responsibility of governance, is whether it is fitted to the situation, and whether it is executed effectively. As Niebuhr observed in 1953: “The definitions of ‘realists’ and ‘idealists’ emphasizes disposition, rather than doctrines, and they are therefore bound to be inexact.” Ultimately, Niebuhr understood, decision-making was a different process than theologizing. What mattered in politics was not how choices were framed but how they were made. The acid test was “whether or not a man takes adequate account of all the various factors and forces in a … situation.” A “smart foreign policy,” therefore, can be assessed only on the grounds of its successes and failures, rather than its coherence or intellectual lucidity. The difficulties faced by the Obama administration in foreign affairs have not been conceptual but strategic and tactical. What we are left is not so much an “Obama doctrine” as an “Obama instinct” — a worldview, or a lens, through which the president purports to watch the madness around him with a cool, dispassionate, clear-sighted gaze. Others think in terms of categories or “playbooks”; he is able to see beyond.
From a British perspective, and for a number of other American allies, the Atlantic article makes for tough reading. David Cameron, says Obama, was “distracted by a range of other things” after the 2011 intervention in Libya, and gets much of the blame for the subsequent mess. There are aspects of this criticism that sting because they contain an element of truth. There has indeed been some “free-riding” and it is not unreasonable to point out Ukraine, Libya, and Syria are in the European neighborhood, and not of the same priority to national interests. Yet, as many have pointed out, it is equally true that America has benefited from the order that it established after World War II. For American allies, the problem is not so much that the United States has asked them to share the burden; more that they have been caught in confusion as the president has decided to change the rules, while continuing to mix its messages.
Insofar as there has been a policy on Syria, for example, it has been one that was frenziedly adapted to events — loud on megaphone diplomacy, short on an appreciation of the instruments of power. From the top down, it seemed that the United States was uncertain of its own strategy, with those allies that it had constantly trying to move their feet to keep up with the changing tune. Why initially join the chorus of “Assad must go” without meaning it, and thereby miss the opportunity to exert any diplomatic leverage on the regime? Why draw the “red line” so explicitly, to the surprise of his secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, and the objections of his vice president, Joe Biden? Why speak as if he meant to enforce the “red line” when it was flouted, following his secretary of state, to the extent that not only his international allies (notably, David Cameron) but his closest partisans in Congress fully expected him to authorize military action?
There seemed no ambiguity at the time. “It’s important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we’re sending a signal that that international norm doesn’t mean much. And that is a danger to our national security,” Obama said at the height of the crisis in August 2013, before changing his mind, seeking a way out of “the trap,” apparently consulting only one advisor (chief of staff Denis McDonough), and leaving his secretary of state, John Kerry, surprised, exposed, and undermined. Ironically, it is the oddest testament to the continued importance of one those “free-riders” that it was the U.K. House of Commons’ decision to vote against military action that set in train the chain of events by which Obama began to recoil from military action.
One need not be a hysterical critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy to raise a sceptical, Spockian eye at the retrospective narrative being built around his foreign policy. At best, to call this an “Obama doctrine” is to put a name on a philosophical disposition. At worst, it is to offer a post-facto rationalization of a rather ad hoc set of ill-connected instincts that have caused some confusion among America’s friends, and no little concern among those trained to believe that the United States was indeed “the indispensable nation.” While the president may indeed have liberated himself from the “Washington playbook,” no one else got the memo until after the event. This is the problem with conventional wisdom; it is hard to shift. Or maybe it was all over our head?
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