Is Obama Naive?

President Obama Meets With Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu At The White House

Leon Wieseltier – surprise! – blames Obama’s rationality and his belief that others share it for blinding him to the ambitions of Putin’s Russia:

The lack of preparedness at the White House was not merely a weakness of policy but also a weakness of worldview. The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil. There is also no excuse for projecting one’s good intentions, one’s commitment to reason, one’s optimism about history, upon other individuals and other societies and other countries: narcissism is the enemy of empiricism, and we must perceive differences and threats empirically, lucidly, not with disbelief but with resolve. “Our opinions do not coincide,” Putin said after meeting with Obama last year. The sentence reverberates. That lack of coincidence is now a fact of enormous geopolitical significance.

But opinions don’t coincide with almost all geo-political adversaries and even allies. That doesn’t mean that some common ground on the question of shared interests cannot also be reached, even as one retains no illusions about the underlying conflict. Rich Lowry shakes his head at the administration, which he says should have learned from the Bush era that Putin was not to be trusted:

Of all President George W. Bush’s failings, not giving the Russians a chance wasn’t one of them. He notoriously looked into the eyes of Russian resident Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his presidency and saw sweetness and light. His illusions were shattered by the end, with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

Larison counters Lowry’s whitewashing of Bush’s Russia policy:

It is not possible to understand Russian behavior over the last ten years without acknowledging the extent to which U.S.-Russian relations were wrecked by several Western policies, chief among them being Bush’s push for missile defense in eastern Europe and NATO expansion into the former USSR. If the Bush administration suffered from any illusions, it was that the U.S. could consistently goad and provoke Russia in its own region without consequences. By the end of Bush’s second term, that illusion was dispelled, and it was in order to repair the substantial damage that had been done in the previous five or six years that the U.S. successfully sought to find common interests with Russia.

Chait takes a broader look at Obama’s foreign policy. He argues, contra Fred Kaplan, that Obama isn’t a realist:

The Libya example alone cracks apart the case – no Realist would ever have committed American military power to save civilians in the service of a social revolution obviously unsettling to American interests.

The reason Obama has had liberal humanitarians like Power and Susan Rice on his foreign policy staff since his campaign, and throughout his presidency, is that he shares their ideological goals within the limits of what is practically attainable. Obviously, Obama is no George W. Bush. On the other hand, nobody else is George W. Bush, either. Most American presidents fall somewhere on the continuum between Bushian crusading moralism and Nixonian ruthlessness. Obama does, too.

Chait is right, it seems to me, on the broad level. And yet Libya remains more of an exception than a rule. And Obama seems to have learned from its unintended consequences just how dangerous liberal internationalist impulses can be.

(Photo: Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with U.S. President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House March 3, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Obama urged Netanyahu to ‘seize the moment’ to make peace, saying time is running out of time to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. By Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images.)