The foreign policy that President Obama describes in his extraordinary series of interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg is pretty much exactly the foreign policy that I would support – far more so than the foreign policy that the Obama Administration has actually followed.
To some degree, that divergence exists because the President himself has changed over the course of his tenure. He came into office with certain instincts about how American foreign policy had to change, but far more optimism than he currently has about the ability of better policies to achieve dramatically better outcomes, as well as even a president’s ability to significantly change the course of foreign policy. Even the ways in which the President failed to follow his own preferred policies – backing into an over-commitment to escalating the war in Afghanistan, for example, or failing to convince allies like Israel or Saudi Arabia to rein in their more destructive policies in the interests of their patron – become more comprehensible in light of his candid articulation of the constraints within which any president operates.
President Obama describes himself as both a “realist” and an “internationalist.” He’s a realist inasmuch as he believes that we can’t solve all the world’s problems, can’t be everywhere at once, can’t solve most problems through the application of force, need to be wary of free-riding by phony allies, and need to distinguish clearly between core interests and matters more peripheral to our concern. He’s an internationalist inasmuch as he believes our core interests are deeply intertwined with the well-being of other countries, inasmuch as many of the most serious challenges to those interests require international cooperation to confront, and inasmuch as he strongly believes in the framework of transnational and supra-national institutions designed to facilitate that cooperation. I concur on all counts.
He also describes himself as both a fatalist and an optimist. He’s a fatalist inasmuch as he believes in many if not most circumstances there is little America can do to change the course of events overseas, and inasmuch as the power of tribal and other atavistic attachments endure far beyond what liberal-minded do-gooders might wish or imagine. He’s an optimist inasmuch as he believes that despite the endurance of those attachments, over time the world is nonetheless growing less-violent and better-fed, and that the arc of history still bends toward justice, if usually slowly. I pretty much concur on all of those counts as well.
Goldberg describes in some detail the way in which President Obama was “liberated” by the decision to reverse himself and not attack Syria. In retrospect it would obviously have been preferable never to have threatened to attack rather than to threaten and not follow up. But it took a singular act of political courage on the President’s part to back down, because it is absolutely certain that he would have been praised for using force, even by those who would not have voted to use force themselves, and even if force produced a disastrous outcome, and the President certainly knew that. He deserves more credit than he generally gets for refusing to say: “It’s too late. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.”
The President’s apparent disdain, verging on contempt, for much of the foreign policy-making apparatus in Washington rivals that of this magazine. I relished the President’s acerbic takedown of the claim, often made, that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was prompted by a perception of American fecklessness: “I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.” One of the most depressing conclusions I drew from Goldberg’s article is that President Obama has been battling the instincts of that apparatus for very nearly his entire presidency, growing more obdurate in his resistance as time has passed, and that this resistance has had virtually no effect on that apparatus’s instincts at all.
Like President Eisenhower, Obama will likely leave office on a note of caution to future administrations – but one that implicitly admits his failure to address a central problem in making foreign policy that he only belatedly understood. Like President Eisenhower, that hard-won wisdom is all but certain to be ignored by his successor, who will likely be either a full-throated liberal interventionist or an erratic, impulsive nationalist.
I am going to miss him very much, no matter who follows.