The president’s cautious foreign policy may end up being his greatest legacy
Those of us who wish the United States would intervene less in the world are fated to be forever unsatisfied. Americans are activists by nature; we like to believe we can make the world a better place, even if that takes military force. Restraint, caution and humility are not among our chief characteristics. It seems somehow un-American to suggest that there are answers we don’t have, crises we can’t solve, countries we don’t know how to guide. Presidents, who serve in part as embodiments of the national consciousness, will always be reluctant to acknowledge those truths.
President Barack Obama, however, is becoming a notable exception. Anti-interventionists have plenty of reasons to be unhappy with him. Some of our complaints may have more to do with the inherent restrictions on the American presidency than Obama’s impulses, but others are grounded in genuine disagreements with the important decisions he has made regarding when to intervene and where.
Nevertheless, we may soon look back on the Obama presidency as a rare break from the snarling aggressiveness that is often at the center of United States foreign policy.
Us vs. them
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016, recently criticized Obama’s relative caution in approving foreign interventions. Clinton grew up during the Cold War and has never let go of the us-vs.-them paradigm that shaped the world in those days. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, she accused Obama of “hunkering down and pulling back.”
Clinton is an instinctive interventionist. In 2003 she voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. She has eagerly promoted the long campaign to demonize Iran; it is no accident that the effort to reach U.S.-Iran reconciliation began only after she left her job as secretary of state. In 2011 she joined Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and Samantha Power of the National Security Council to form the “dum-dum girls” coalition that persuaded Obama to intervene in Libya.
That intervention brought the overthrow and death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but it also pushed Libya into terrifying chaos and sent waves of heavy weaponry from Libyan arsenals into the hands of militants and terrorists across North Africa. Obama recently conceded that he “underestimated” the negative consequences of this intervention.
“So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene militarily?’” he told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. “Do we have an answer the day after?”
This is not a normal question for an American to ask, much less a president. There is something vaguely subversive about it. Americans like to assume that we can accomplish whatever we want — that we can triumph not only over foreign armies but also over obstacles posed by technology, nature, long-established cultures and even history itself. Obama was suggesting that this is not always true.
He has not always been so cautious, as his approval of the Libya intervention shows. Nonetheless, he clearly seems to have evolved — to use one of his favorite words — toward the anti-interventionist position. Both Republicans and mainstream Democrats such as Clinton routinely criticize him for his reticence. Anti-interventionists should give him more credit.
The United States may soon enter another era of reckless foreign adventures. And when that happens, we will look back fondly on Obama.
Obama took the prudent course rather than the knee-jerk one when he refused to send weapons into the cauldron of civil war in Syria. Clinton charges that this “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” The clear implication is if she had been president, the United States would have intervened in Syria. It means she either does not think about the day after or is confident that the U.S. now knows how to win wars in the Middle East.
More recently, Obama has taken a course of relative restraint in Ukraine and Iraq. He has supported vigorous sanctions on Russia because of its actions in Ukraine but made no military threats; he realizes that U.S. leverage is limited because Russia will always care more about Ukraine than the U.S. does. In Iraq he felt forced to provide emergency assistance but has struggled to keep it as limited as possible.
He is on a learning curve that Americans who are worried about their country’s role in the world should applaud. In this, he is the opposite of our last president. Comedian Stephen Colbert famously said that George W. Bush “believes the same thing on Wednesday that he believed on Monday — no matter what happened Tuesday.” That can’t be said of Obama, at least when it comes to his understanding of the dangers the U.S. can bring upon itself by charging into foreign countries. He seems to have been chastened by experience and to have adjusted his mindset accordingly.
So have other Americans. In December a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent believe the United States should “mind its own business internationally” — up from just 30 percent a decade ago.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, an anti-interventionist Democrat may emerge to challenge Clinton, and the admirably humble foreign policy that Sen. Rand Paul supports may find traction among Republicans. Far more likely, however, is that the bipartisan consensus favoring aggressive foreign policy — the approach that Clinton and Sen. John McCain embody — will reassert itself.
America’s next president will probably be someone who will seek to swing the geopolitical pendulum back in the direction of more overseas interventions. Whether Americans are ready for that, so soon after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, remains uncertain. Like people everywhere, however, they are easy moved by well-designed fear campaigns. If history repeats itself, the United States may soon enter another era of reckless foreign adventures. And when that happens, we will look back fondly on Obama.
Stephen Kinzer is a former New York Times foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. He is the author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq” and “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War.” He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he teaches international relations.