Home/Daniel Larison/There Is No Foreign Policy “Paradox”

There Is No Foreign Policy “Paradox”

Roger Cohen recycles a bizarre idea:

The president who is delivering the foreign policy Americans supposedly want is unpopular for it.

The “paradox” thesis wasn’t persuasive when it was first made, and it gets worse with every repetition. There are several other explanations that make far more sense. The most obvious is that Obama is not, in fact, delivering the foreign policy most Americans want. According to this, the public sees an administration that still can’t keep itself from getting involved in crises and conflicts that are tangential to U.S. security. A majority is disillusioned with a president who claimed to be extricating the U.S. from foreign conflicts, but has ended up trying to find ways to join them. It doesn’t matter very much that he has appeared to do so reluctantly, and it may even be more damaging that he is often perceived as being dragged into implementing policies that he doesn’t fully support. I think this is also the most reasonable explanation, but there are others one could accept without believing that there is some “paradox” at work.

Another way to account for Obama’s recent unpopularity on foreign policy is that his administration has demonstrated a remarkable degree of bungling and incompetence since the start of the second term. Most partisans on both sides will reliably oppose or support a president’s policies, but weak partisans and independents tend to recoil from administrations that appear to be clueless or overwhelmed by events. Between the Snowden affair, international backlash against NSA surveillance, the confusion over Syria last summer, the ongoing deterioration of Libya, and the collapse of the effort to revive the “peace process,” the administration has been perceived as suffering one embarrassment or setback after another. Diplomacy with Iran has been the main, and perhaps only, exception to all this, and until it produces a comprehensive deal the administration won’t receive much credit for it.

A third explanation related to the other two is that Obama’s overall approval rating has finally caught up with him on foreign policy. Where he once received higher marks on foreign policy than he did for his overall performance, that is no longer the case. That is not because the public is somehow dissatisfied with being given the foreign policy they want, but because Obama’s record in the last year has been clearly at odds with those preferences. More Americans used to see Obama as doing better on foreign policy than on other issues, and as his most popular early decisions fade Obama starts to be judged on more recent and evidently more unpopular decisions. As with most other issues, voters are probably wondering, “What have you done for us lately?” On foreign policy, the answer to that question is that Obama nearly dragged the U.S. into another unnecessary war just last year, and the public obviously didn’t want that. Judging from the Gallup numbers, the late August/early September push for intervention in Syria coincides with the period when Obama’s approval rating went underwater, and it has not recovered since then. The fact that he didn’t go through with an attack on Syria is probably what has kept his approval rating from going even lower, but following that episode almost no one except for partisan loyalists really trusts Obama’s judgment. That may be the most important reason why most Americans don’t approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy any longer.

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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