The Broken Policy Promises of W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama

And why, from the Persian Gulf to Iraq to Syria, Americans haven’t gotten — and won’t be getting — the foreign policy they want.

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 25:  (L-R) U.S. President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush and former President Jimmy Carter attend the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center April 25, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. The Bush library, which is located on the campus of Southern Methodist University, with more than 70 million pages of paper records, 43,000 artifacts, 200 million emails and four million digital photographs, will be opened to the public on May 1, 2013. The library is the 13th presidential library in the National Archives and Records Administration system.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - APRIL 25: (L-R) U.S. President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush and former President Jimmy Carter attend the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center April 25, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. The Bush library, which is located on the campus of Southern Methodist University, with more than 70 million pages of paper records, 43,000 artifacts, 200 million emails and four million digital photographs, will be opened to the public on May 1, 2013. The library is the 13th presidential library in the National Archives and Records Administration system. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

What do Americans want from the country’s foreign policy? The same things that most countries want: security first and foremost, followed by prosperity, and (if possible) the sense that the country is advancing desirable political or moral values. Some Americans also think it’s nice if the United States wins a lot of medals at the Olympics, enjoys a certain status as “leader of the free world,” and even stages a few spectacular symbolic events like landing a live human on the moon. But mostly they want to be safe, reasonably comfortable, and to believe their country is on the side of the angels.

But as I look back at the last three presidential administrations and I contemplate the utterly bizarre campaign that is going on before our disbelieving eyes, what strikes me is how each of the three post-Cold War presidents failed to give the American people the foreign policy that they promised when they ran for office. In each case, in fact, the candidate promised a more restrained, sensible — dare I say “realist”? — foreign policy, and in each case they delivered an overly ambitious, decidedly unrealistic, and largely unsuccessful product. Some failed worse than others (see under: George W. Bush) but none gave the American people the foreign policy they promised or that the people seem to have wanted.

Think back to 1992. Running against George H.W. Bush, whose foreign-policy credentials and achievements were undeniably impressive, Bill Clinton told Americans “it’s the economy, stupid” and promised to spend the “peace dividend” here at home. But once in office, he couldn’t resist the siren song of liberal hegemony. He expanded NATO eastward, which just gave America more weak countries to protect and did little to enhance U.S. security, and he embraced “dual containment” in the Persian Gulf, which added even more to U.S. defense burdens and helped persuade Osama bin Laden to direct his attention toward the “far enemy” and put the country on the path toward 9/11.

To be sure, Clinton was wary of costly international quagmires and refused to send U.S. ground troops anywhere really dangerous. His strategy of “engagement and enlargement” rested on the assumption that spreading democracy and expanding U.S. security guarantees would be cost-free, because democracies wouldn’t fight each other, Russia would remain weak forever, and all those new multilateral guarantees would never have to be honored. Clinton also got lucky, insofar as the consequences of some of his missteps (such as 9/11 and Russian revanchism) didn’t come home to roost until he was safely out of the White House.

Next, consider the 2000 election. Running against Vice President Al Gore and lacking foreign-policy experience, George W. Bush sounded a modest and realistic note throughout the campaign and relied on the so-called Vulcans, several of whom had decidedly realist pedigrees. He promised Americans a foreign policy that would be strong but “humble,” and both he and his advisors chided Clinton and Gore for their misguided efforts at “nation-building.” In short, Americans were told that Bush would focus on great power politics, avoid messy quagmires in countries of marginal strategic importance, and keep our powder dry.

Bush’s good intentions were blown off course completely by two distinct factors. First, instead of relying on realists from the Brent Scowcroft/Colin Powell wing of the Republican Party, he allowed Dick Cheney to populate his administration with neoconservatives who had greater ambitions and even worse judgment than the Clintonites. Second, the 9/11 attacks allowed the neocons to convert Bush to their misguided worldview and pave the way to the disastrous quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of giving Americans the foreign policy they had voted for, Bush, Cheney, and the neocons gave them the absurd goal of trying to transform the Middle East and then spread liberty throughout the world. We all know how well that worked.

Fast forward to 2008. A little-known senator from Illinois runs a successful upstart campaign, based in part on his undeniable eloquence but also on the singular fact that he had opposed the Iraq war from the start. He vows to end that war and, more importantly, to rebuild America’s troubled relations with the rest of the world by embracing a more sensible, farsighted, and realistic foreign policy. Given what had happened in Iraq and also Afghanistan, surely he would heed the wishes of the American people (and the lessons of these latest experiments in nation-building) and not repeat his predecessors’ errors. And surely this former lecturer in constitutional law would correct the excesses of the Bush/Cheney era: closing Gitmo, ending torture, halting warrantless surveillance, reducing secrecy, and running a transparent and accountable government.

But that didn’t happen, either. Obama gave some great speeches, and his eloquence and evident idealism did win over publics in a number of places (and especially the Norwegian Nobel Committee). To his credit, he also led partly successful efforts to address climate change, nuclear security, and Iran’s nuclear program. But he increased U.S. reliance on targeted killings, prosecuted more whistleblowers than Bush did, and refused to hold top official national security officials accountable when they deceived the public. He approved an ill-conceived “surge” in Afghanistan to no good purpose, waffled in his response to the Arab Spring, backed a foolish intervention in Libya that created a failed state, and has been unable to fully disengage from the tar baby in Iraq. His efforts to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace came to naught for the same reason that the previous 20 years of U.S. “peace processing” had failed: AIPAC and the rest of the Israeli lobby made it impossible for Washington to be a genuine, honest broker or to halt the endless expansion of Israeli settlements.

To be sure, Obama kept the United States out of Syria and has taken a measured approach toward the crisis in Ukraine. This good judgment has led hawks to criticize him for “weakness” and to claim that excessive U.S. restraint is creating a more dangerous world. Predictably, such views are echoed by client states that have become accustomed to Uncle Sucker’s protection and that are quick to complain about our credibility whenever Washington refused to do their bidding. But as Daniel Larison points out, the claim that the United States is retreating “makes the slightest sense if the point of comparison is the height of the Iraq war 10 years ago, and even then it’s risible.” Will Ruger unpacks the charge and demolishes it:

“[T]he United States under Obama has continued to pursue a variant of primacy despite what [Robert] Lieber and others keep saying in their critiques. The United States is still committed to defending over 60 other countries and commanding the global commons. It still has a forward-deployed military living on a globe-girdling network of hundreds of military bases. In fact, it has recently sent more troops and equipment to Iraq, Eastern Europe, and even Australia. The United States still enjoys the world’s strongest military force, costing taxpayers around $600 billion a year. This sum represents nearly a third of all global spending and is equal to that of at least the next 10 countries combined. Its nearest competitor, China, spends far less, about $150 billion. And during the Obama years, the United States surged forces in Afghanistan, fought a war against Libya that led to regime change, re-entered Iraq and engaged (even if tepidly) in Syria, supported Saudi Arabia’s dubious fight in Yemen, continued to conduct drone strikes abroad, became unprofitably enmeshed diplomatically in Ukraine’s troubles, and continued to exert its power and influence in Asia. And just recently the U.S. again bombed targets in Libya. Retreat, you say?”

In short, Obama has hardly run a left-wing foreign policy, or one that departed from the broad establishment consensus about American exceptionalism and its alleged indispensability as the provider of global order.

Which brings us to 2016. Once again, the American people seem to want a foreign policy that is less hyperactive and a lot more effective. A Pew Research Center survey in April found that 57 percent of Americans think the United States should “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with theirs the best they can,” and 41 percent thought the country was doing “too much” in world affairs while only 27 percent thought it was doing “too little.” And as was the case in 1992, 2000, and 2008, we have one candidate (Trump) suggesting — however incoherently — that he’d do a bunch of things differently. He’d stop allies from free-riding, stay out of the nation-building business, and (supposedly) browbeat friends and foes alike on the force of his personality alone. This might sound good at first hearing, but anyone who believes he’d do any of these things effectively is precisely the sort of gullible customer that Trump has conned throughout his checkered business career. Caveat emptor.

And then there’s Hillary Clinton. She’s been a hawkish internationalist throughout her political career, and believes it is better for the United States to try and fail than not to try at all. And her large foreign policy team is chock-full of bright-eyed liberal internationalists who are convinced the United States can solve lots of vexing international problems in places it doesn’t understand if only they get the chance.

But even Clinton recognizes that support for liberal hegemony is soft, which is why she told an audience last week that the United States would “never” send ground troops back into Iraq. But one may question whether she’d stick to that statement — especially if she continues to listen to the people who have advised her in the past and are likely to do so in the future.

So why don’t Americans get the foreign policy they want? One could argue that it is because the American people don’t know enough about foreign policy, and so they have to leave it to the experts in the foreign-policy establishment. That is certainly possible, but this explanation would be a lot more persuasive if that same establishment hadn’t blown it big-time repeatedly in recent years, and for the same reasons (inflating threats, exaggerating the utility of military force, being too deferential to allies of little strategic value, and letting domestic politics override broader strategic considerations).

The real reasons Americans don’t get the foreign policy they want are threefold.

First, because the country is still so wealthy and so secure, it is mostly immune from the consequences of its foreign-policy follies. Other countries may suffer grievous harm when the United States miscalculates, but most Americans don’t.

Second, the United States built a lot of global institutions, took on a lot of global burdens, and created a large set of national security organizations during the Cold War. The status quo is well-entrenched, and that helps explain why U.S. leaders are loath to abandon attitudes, commitments, and policies that have been in place for decades, even though the condition of the world has changed in a number of important respects.

Third, America’s foreign-policy establishment — to include the usual government bureaucracies, interest groups, think tanks, schools of public policy, charitable foundations, and a lot of the media — is deeply committed to liberal hegemony both for idealistic reasons and because it maximizes their own power and status. Dissenting voices do exist (as this column often proves), but they are a distinct minority. Or as scholars Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton observed some years ago, there is a persistent “disconnect” between elite and mass opinion on foreign policy, and “official U.S. foreign policy often differs from the policies most Americans want.” And in American politics, when a well-positioned minority believes strongly in a particular approach and the public at large is indifferent or only intermittently engaged by the issue, the minority usually wins.

And that, my fellow Americans, is why you aren’t getting the foreign policy you want or deserve.

Photo credit: ALEX WONG/Getty Images

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

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