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Obama Is No Jeffersonian

Many times before I have objected to the foreign policy classifications Walter Russell Mead uses when describing different American foreign policy traditions, and this new article is a good example of why I find them so misleading and frequently inaccurate. As a shorthand, the terms can be useful up to a point, but the more I see them used the more I think that they serve to caricature and distort the positions of most of the foreign policy views in question. Is it really true that Bush dissolved the base of “Jacksonian” political support for the war in Iraq by turning it into a democratizing, nation-building mission? On the contrary, practically the only people left in America outside of Washington and New York who still say they support the war in Iraq fit Mead’s “Jacksonian” profile. The Jacksonians were among the first on board and the last to give up on the war. I have discussed the reasons for this before.

Does it really make sense to say that Obama is Jeffersonian? No. If Jeffersonians dissent from a globalist consensus (and for many of us this is correct), Obama is not among the dissenters. Mead is completely wrong when he says that Obama “comes from the old-fashioned Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic Party, and the strategic goal of his foreign policy is to reduce America’s costs and risks overseas by limiting U.S. commitments wherever possible.” Many Obama voters may come from this wing, but he does not. For that matter, Mead is mistaken when he claims that Carter belongs to this wing. Was the man who gave us the Carter Doctrine intent on “limiting U.S. commitments wherever possible”? This is obviously not true. As for Obama, do we really think that someone who has upheld so many of the expansive executive powers grabbed by his predecessor desires to roll back the national security state on civil libertarian grounds? This is ludicrous stuff, and that is the point. Mead apparently has nothing to say about the Obama who actually exists, so he has concocted this easily dismissed “Jeffersonian” Obama. Mead must know better than anyone that a real Jeffersonian would not be able to win the Presidency today, and he can’t have concluded after reading and hearing all of Obama’s foreign policy speeches that the President is a Jeffersonian, so he portrays him this way to serve some other end.

As if this were not damning enough in the eyes of foreign policy thinkers, he adds the coup de grace by making the (inevitable) Carter comparison. Unquestionably, Carter’s foreign policy record was largely disastrous, so it will not do to remember that Carter was a relatively moderate Southern Democrat firmly in the liberal internationalist mainstream. If his party was generally in a more “Jeffersonian” mood after Vietnam, Carter did not follow his party down that road. Obama has certainly not gone this route, and even Mead is forced to acknowledge that Obama’s approach far more resembles that of Nixonian realists than that of the Jeffersonians whom McGovern represented. However, in order to keep this tottering argument from collapsing Mead is reduced to claiming that detente is an example of Jeffersonian foreign policy!

If there is one thing Obama has no interest in, it is in dissenting from the consensus that holds that increasing global interdependence and close American involvement in greater global integration are desirable things. The so-called “Hamiltonian” position that “a strong national government and a strong military should pursue a realist global policy and that the government can and should promote economic development and the interests of American business at home and abroad” fits Obama far better, but to describe him this way would not help Mead portray Obama as the weak ditherer that he seems to want to describe.

P.S. Obama has a Wilsonian streak, but this doesn’t mean very much. Every internationalist of the last thirty years has something of a Wilsonian streak. No one would believe that Obama fits Mead’s definition of Wilsonian, which states that Wilsonians see “the promotion of democracy and human rights as the core elements of American grand strategy.” Even fair observers of the first year of the Obama administration could not conclude that he has prioritized these things in his handling of foreign policy.

P.P.S. Mead’s bad analysis is made more annoying when he hides his indictment of Obama as a potential Carter-like failure behind unconvincing praise of Obama’s “great dignity and courage” and his claims that we need a foreign policy vision of restraint and caution more than ever. This is an effective way of pretending to admire “Jeffersonian” foreign policy while making it easy to blame “Jeffersonian” policy for the failures of other foreign policy traditions.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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