A Foreign Policy Of Caution

by Jonah Shepp

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Frank Rich takes on critics of Obama’s foreign policy regarding his approach to the Iraq/Syria conflict:

You will notice that the crowd of pundits and (mostly Republican) politicians insisting that Obama “do something” about these horrors never actually say what that “something” is. They offer no strategy of their own beyond an inchoate bellicosity expressed in constructions along the lines of “we must more forcefully do whatever it is that Obama is doing.” That’s because Obama is already doing the things that can be done (and that some of his critics redundantly suggest): bombing ISIS positions wherever it is feasible; searching for allies to join action that might defeat them on the ground; trying to rally Europe to tighten the economic noose on Putin and Russia. There will surely be more actions to come when America’s ducks are in a row, and if the president were to delineate them, you can be certain he’d be condemned for tipping off our enemies in advance.

This is something I neglected to mention in yesterday’s post criticizing Shadi Hamid’s take on Obama’s “inflexibility” on Syria (Hamid has responded via Twitter, arguing mainly that the situations in Iraq and Libya were different enough from Syria that they don’t make the case against intervention). As Rich points out, Obama has already “flexed” considerably in the direction the pro-intervention crowd would prefer. I think Obama went into office hoping to soften the Bush Doctrine, fight transnational jihadism as a security challenge rather than a moral crusade, and make direct US military intervention in foreign conflicts the exception rather than the rule. He has scaled back those ambitions considerably, partly in light of events on the ground but also because the notion of America as the world cop still holds sway in Washington’s clique of foreign policy elites. I expect him to “flex” on intervention in Syria as well, but I read his reticence to commit to a specific course of action as a sign that he is doing due diligence in weighing his options, not brushing off the crisis altogether.

Unfortunately, one man’s deliberation is another man’s dithering, and the president’s caution is being spun as weakness, even though, as Dan Froomkin points out, there are scads of questions that we ought to be asking before launching a potentially lengthy military engagement but aren’t. War hawks would do well to remember how terrible we are at predicting the outcomes of such engagements: like the president himself, I’m skittish about going to war in Syria not because I disagree that ISIS is a blight on humanity, but rather because going to war has deadly, unpredictable consequences. A decision can be morally crystal clear at the moment and still cause great suffering down the line.

In one of his most insightful takes on Obama’s foreign policy, Max Fisher describes it as stemming from a broad, optimistic worldview that pays more heed to the long-term trend toward a safer and more stable world than to the bumps in the road that leads there. Fisher examines how this “professorial” approach is playing out in the Ukraine crisis:

This is a strategy that essentially abandons eastern Ukraine — and any other non-NATO eastern European country that Putin might choose to invade — to Russian aggression. Still, in the very long view, it is essentially correct: Russia’s foreign policy is dangerous today, but in the long-term it is self-defeating. On the scale of years or decades, Putin will leave Russia weaker, less powerful, and less of a threat; the US-led Western order will eventually prevail. “Eventually” does nothing to address Russian aggression now, but it will turn it back some day.

But Obama’s job is not to be an academic studying long-term trends in American foreign policy. His job is to make decisions — hard decisions — every single day for eight extremely difficult years. Parsing the arc of foreign-policy history has not given him the answers for the problems of this moment. He is steering a race car as if it were a cruise ship, and while history will likely thank him for keeping US foreign policy pointed in the right direction, it may not so easily forgive him for the damage taken along the way.

Which is why, I think, Obama is so reviled by his critics today. I doubt, though, whether history will really remember him so fondly, and whether we will ever learn from these crises. Because one can never prove or disprove a counterfactual, I fear that the argument over whether American intervention does or does not “work” will continue at least as long as the US remains the world’s sole superpower, and that the interventionists will win out most or all of the time.

In the case of Iraq and Syria, the emotional and moral arguments will probably win the day. Examining Obama and his critics through the lens of Walter Russell Mead’s taxonomy of American foreign policy traditions, Peter Beinart fears that “Jacksonian” jingoism is pushing us toward war for the wrong reasons, in the wake of the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff:

In narrow policy terms, the arguments for military intervention have not improved over the last two weeks. It’s still not clear if Iraq’s government is inclusive enough to take advantage of American attacks and wean Sunnis from ISIS. It’s even less clear if the U.S. can bomb ISIS in Syria without either empowering Assad or other Sunni jihadist rebel groups. But politically, that doesn’t matter. What’s causing this Jacksonian eruption is the sight of two terrified Americans, on their knees, about to be beheaded by masked fanatics. Few images could more powerfully stoke Jacksonian rage. The politicians denouncing Obama for lacking a “strategy” against ISIS may not have one either, but they have a gut-level revulsion that they can leverage for political gain. “Bomb the hell out of them!” exclaimed Illinois Senator Mark Kirk on Tuesday. “We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age,” added Texas Senator Ted Cruz. These aren’t policy prescriptions. They are cries for revenge.

And it doesn’t help that many Americans don’t know where we’re dropping bombs but largely approve of doing so:

Less than a quarter of the public are aware that the US has recently launched strikes in Somalia, Pakistan or Yemen. 30% also say, incorrectly, that the US has recently conducted bombed Syria and only 32% of Americans know that the US has not in fact launched air or drone strikes in Syria. Most Americans support conducting air or drone strikes in Iraq (60%), Afghanistan (54%) and Syria (51%). They also tend to support the ongoing drone campaigns in Somalia (45%), Pakistan (45%) and Yemen (38%). They would also tend to approve (38%) rather than disapprove (33%) of conducting drone strikes in Iran. 29% of Americans say that they would approve of the US bombing Gaza and Ukraine.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)