Few things have been more poorly understood about the Obama administration than its foreign policy. Partisan and ideological blinders have tended to obscure and distort how critics and supporters have interpreted his policy decisions and his reactions to events around the world. More hawkish interventionists have fixated on Obama’s diplomatic overtures to authoritarian states, his condemnation of Manuel Zelaya’s deposition, and his slightly firmer line on Israeli settlements as proof of weakness and perfidy, while realists and liberals have great confidence that the same represents a significant positive departure from past policy, but both are finding more in these moves than is really there. This has led to a number of misconceptions about how to classify the Obama administration’s foreign policy inclinations, and it has created confusion in how we should judge the administration’s performance in improving relations with much of the rest of the world.
What continues to confuse observers on both sides is the remarkable—or perhaps depressing—continuity between the Obama and Bush administrations in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, which is usually acknowledged only when it suits the rhetorical purposes of an argument. Critics and supporters alike would rather emphasize a dialectical relationship between the two administrations in which Obama is the antithesis of Bush for good or ill, which permits discredited neoconservative interventionists to describe any Obama failures as the repudiation of realism, their traditional bête noire, and allows realists and liberals to rediscover the virtues of U.S. hegemony by confusing change in management with change in policy.
This continuity necessarily thwarts any attempt to find a consistent theme or pattern to the administration’s actions, and it renders criticisms of a lack of consistency moot. That has not stopped critics from trying to find grand, unifying explanations of Obama’s actions, such as perceiving a “pro-dictator,” “anti-democratic,” or “anti-American” pattern in Obama’s responses to the Honduran constitutional crisis and Iranian elections, but these are unsupported claims. No administration will ever pursue any policy with anything like perfect consistency, and Obama’s predecessor was no exception, so we should expect the same consistency or lack thereof from an administration that has largely followed in its predecessor’s footsteps. Indeed, the difficulty of pursuing a policy consistently draws more attention to the flaws of the policy than to an undesirable lack of consistency.
No matter how idealistic and ideological an administration may be, there are structures and interests that limit how any administration can act: Every ‘freedom agenda’ must have its exceptions for Arab dictators and anti-Russian demagogues, every non-proliferation regime must have its exceptions for allied nuclear states outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and every ‘war on terror’ must make room for or at least overlook the sponsorship of terrorism by allied governments. For that matter, there may also be longtime allies that find themselves at odds with major multilateral organizations, as the Honduran transitional government recently has, in which case Washington may end up siding with the latter as part of its regional or global “leadership” role. So a lack of consistency in administration policy by itself is neither praiseworthy nor damning—it is what the reality of international affairs imposes on even the most zealous ideologue.
Inasmuch as Wilsonian idealism has permeated both parties especially since the end of the Cold War, the criticisms that partisan opponents level at a given administration will typically be framed in terms of the administration’s failures or disinterest in promoting democracy, and the administration’s defenders will stress its overriding democratist goals. Once again, we have debates over means rather than ends. We have seen this nowhere more clearly than in the domestic reactions to Obama’s handling of the Iranian elections. Whether or not Obama’s domestic critics were genuinely interested in the plight of Iran’s reformers, whom many hawkish interventionists had previously derided as fundamentally no different from their hard-line rivals, they took up the cause of the Iranian protesters and demanded more forceful rhetoric and action from the president, who resisted calls to insert himself into what was an entirely internal Iranian matter.
When Obama did not heed their calls, hawkish critics were furious about the “betrayal of democracy” that this represented. However, even as he said little and did less in response to Tehran’s crackdown, Obama wanted to emphasize that his restraint was the best means of aiding Iranian dissidents. This may be true, given past U.S. interference in domestic Iranian politics and the regime’s mockery of the protests as a phony U.S.-backed “color” revolution, but the crucial point is that Obama felt compelled to explain his restraint in these terms. More than that, his aides reportedly wanted to credit the president’s earlier speech in Cairo with sparking the apparent late surge for Moussavi as a way of emphasizing the importance of soft power in shaping public opinion. In other words, the new administration wanted it known that regime change in Tehran and democracy promotion in Muslim countries, two ideas for which the previous administration was quite properly criticized as overly ideological and detached from reality, were still very much a part of U.S. policy despite any apparent changes to the contrary.
Classifications of foreign policy schools or inclinations are never precise, whether they are applied to the thinking of individuals or entire administrations, as most policymakers combine elements from different schools and will tend to adapt their use of diplomatic, political, and military tools to changing circumstances. As we recall from the preparation for the Iraq war and the slight shifts made during the second Bush term, even inside the Bush administration one would find conflicting views and changes in the president’s own thinking over time. It is also important to bear in mind that these classifications tend to bleed into one another in practice, which is a function of the broad bipartisan consensus about the legitimacy and necessity of the projection of American power around the world, the preservation of U.S. military and political supremacy, the promotion of liberal democratic values, and the inevitability of American global leadership. Most foreign policy debates take place within these fairly narrow boundaries, and the points of contention are questions of means rather than ends.
This practical blurring of lines between foreign policy schools is also the result of widely shared cultural-political convictions that Andrew Bacevich has called the “ideology of national security,” which is the belief that expanding freedom (however vaguely or loosely defined) is the purpose of history and the mission of the U.S., that American actions abroad serve this purpose, and that both American freedom and security are bound up in ensuring universal freedom. While such ideas are normally associated today with neoconservatives or “hard Wilsonian” idealists, it is fair to say that this ideology is the foundation of the bipartisan consensus just described, and most internationalists—which is to say most Americans who spend any time thinking about foreign policy—partake of it to some extent.
Obama sympathizers have fixated on superficial changes in style and tone in the hopes that they represent some significant shift in policy, and enemies have discovered proof of sinister plots in the same ultimately trivial gestures. Thus Obama’s ‘recognition’ of the Iranian government by using its formal title of Islamic Republic, or the initial gestures connected with “resetting” the relationship with Russia, or even something as unremarkable as acknowledging the American role in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 are taken as powerful signals one way or the other: as exciting openings to rapprochement or pathetic instances of weakness and capitulation. As it happens, the truth is far simpler than either of these interpretations allows.
For all of the praise—and abuse—the administration has received for its greater realism, it clearly remains committed to halting Iran’s nuclear program by any means available and to unnecessary, provocative NATO expansion into former Soviet space, even though both policies expose the U.S. to many more costs and risks rather than fewer. For all of the talk of engagement and “reset,” the substance of our Iran and Russia policies has not changed under the new administration, and it never was going to change greatly. The administration believed that it could extract concessions and aid from these states through negotiations, but it never intended to alter its behavior toward them. The president still presumes to dictate the security and energy policies of other states, and he still insists on extending our sphere of influence to Russia’s borders in the name of eliminating spheres of influence. Whichever name one wants to give to this sort of foreign policy, it remains inexplicably aggressive, hegemonic, and dangerous to U.S. interests, and it is all the more so because it comes wrapped in a veil of diplomatic gestures and the pretense of repairing damaged relations.
Daniel Larison is contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he blogs at Eunomia, and an online columnist for The Week. He has recently completed a Ph.D. in Byzantine history at the University of Chicago.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl