First, Do No Harm


In an interview with TNR, Obama discusses his foreign policy philosophy:

I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good.

And some thought he is a liberal. George W Bush was a utopian liberal. This dude’s a pragmatic, small-c president. But he still couldn’t resist Libya and the still-unfolding consequences – like a new safe harbor for Jihadists. Drezner unpacks the quote:

Obama looks at Syria and sees a grisly situation where the status quo doesn’t hurt American interests — in fact, it’s a mild net positive. Given that situation, Obama’s incentive to intervene is pretty low.

Does this mean Obama is amoral or un-American? Hardly. That answer suggests two things. First. liberal values do matter to Obama — they just don’t matter as much as other things. Second, to be fair, contra academic realism, there is a set of ethical values that are attached to realpolitik, and I think they inform Obama’s decision-making as well. It seems pretty clear that Obama’s first foreign policy instinct after advancing the national interest is the foreign policy equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.

(Photo: A Rebel fighter tries to locate a government jet fighter in the city of Aleppo on January 18, 2013)