The barrage of criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy has cast a new and favorable light on the president and his role in the generally grisly parade of foreign policy cockups that have characterized his two administrations. Particularly, it has highlighted the dissatisfaction of the neoliberal and neocon interventionists with President Obama’s chariness in committing military power to advance their cherished initiatives. And that’s a good thing for Obama. I discussed this issue when I characterized the president’s position as “don’t use stupid actions to follow up on stupid policies.” Remarkably, given the considerable energy and intellectual power exhibited in America’s non-stop overseas jiggery-pokery, US geopolitical strategy has abounded in stupid policies.
And, in my opinion, that’s no accident. I think it has to do with the mindset of the interventionist caucus in the US foreign policy government and private sector apparatus, which has been dragging or guiding the US government into wars (and enhancing its own power, profits, and influence) for generations. The gold standard for ham-fisted intervention is still Iraq War II, but it seems there is an inexhaustible supply of wonks, pundits, advocates, and agitators within the Beltway ready to be “heroes in error” for the next US crusade. A few points about interventionism in the Age of Obama.
First, I think initial failure in foreign affairs strategy in the political and diplomatic sphere, and the subsequent need for escalation into the military realm in order to paper over US failure and preserve credibility is a feature, not a bug, for the US interventionist foreign policy crowd. If you want to be generous, you could say that obvious flaws and risks of foreign policy adventurism—like installing a demonstrably incapable, fascist-larded government in Kyiv over the strong and understandable objections of Russia and, for that matter, a healthy percentage of the population in Ukraine’s eastern demographic and economic heartland—are simply ignored because the hardliners assume that some not clearly defined but invincible combination of money, power, sanctions, coercive diplomacy and, indispensably, utter callousness to the sufferings of the subject population a.k.a. “Strategic Patience” will be sufficient to overcome the defects of even the most irresponsible policy.
I am not inclined to be generous. Syria and Ukraine look like classic examples of “Let’s get the US government on the hook for a confrontational policy. The escalation will take care of itself.” In other words, the policies were designed to paint President Obama into a corner and commit US prestige to fundamentally unviable policies that can only be rescued by escalating to the military solution that the designers of the policy wanted in the first place.
Second, I think President Obama knows this. He got burned on Afghanistan, where the surge turned a disaster that he could have turned the page on into an incubus that sucked life out of his administration for the whole eight years. He also got burned on Libya, a classic “camel’s nose into the tent” or, to be less Orientalist, the classic “no-fly zone turns into unrestricted air warfare” operation that transformed Libya into a failed state. The Iran rapprochement, if-and it’s still a big if-it succeeds, has been conducted in defiance of the interventionists and will probably be the only part of President Obama’s legacy that he can and will genuinely cherish.
Three, it’s kind of nice that the US populace seems rather down on the “tough choices” liberal/neocon interventionist Beltway gang. It’s not just the foreigners upon whom we inflict our policies that hate us. Presumably, this gives President Obama some aid and comfort when he decides to resist the advice of the self-serving foreign policy advocates who have embroiled his administration in a series of miserable confrontations from Afghanistan to Libya to Syria to Ukraine and endure the barrage of criticism their allies and acolytes unleash on the op-ed pages and on the cable networks.
Fourth, unfortunately, political wars, especially foreign policy debates, are fought inside the Beltway, not in the nationwide democratic arena. To paraphrase Napoleon on the Pope, “How many defense contractors, bespoke lobbyists, doctrinaire think tankers, and op-ed writers do the American public have?” Resisting the interventionists, and their desire to maximize their influence and power and validate their well-paid but not particularly successful existence, and taking across the spectrum political and diplomatic heat from domestic and foreign interests eager to get the US on the hook militarily to advance their agendas, is not going to score President Obama many useful political points.
Realization of this situation, I believe, has reflected itself in the president’s morally questionable decision to let the interventionists’ regime change shenanigans play out in places like Syria and Ukraine, while withholding the final military consummation they most desperately crave.
Fifth, I think much of the torrent of lame-duck dumping on President Obama is misguided, cynical, or in the service of Hillary Clinton. Criticism of President Obama is typified by the Ian Bremmer tweet: “Bush: a leader that didn’t think; Obama: a thinker that doesn’t lead.” The actual distinction is that President Obama was not “led,” led by the foreign policy apparatchiks of the same ilk that “led” George W. Bush around by the nose. It is interesting, to say the least, that so many foreign policy types, for various reasons ranging, I imagine, from institutional self interest to advocacy to carrying Hillary Clinton’s water, are following the anti-Obama script.
Sixth, I’m afraid that, unlike President Obama, President Hillary Clinton will love to play the interventionist game because of the authority, power, and political initiative pursuing craptacular but violent foreign policy initiatives give to the White House. In fact, given the Clintonian instinct for outflanking their adversaries by adopting even more extreme forms of their positions, things could get a lot worse.