Obama's Foreign Policy: Dithering or Stealth Postnationalist?
Does President Obama have a foreign policy vision? According to Charles Krauthammer, writing for WaPo (4/11), there are "no discernible [ideas] that make sense of Obama foreign policy."
To be precise, leading from behind is a style, not a doctrine. Doctrines involve ideas, but since there are no discernible ones that make sense of Obama foreign policy - Lizza's painstaking two-year chronicle shows it to be as ad hoc, erratic and confused as it appears - this will have to do.
And it surely is an accurate description, from President Obama's shocking passivity during Iran's 2009 Green Revolution to his dithering on Libya, acting at the very last moment, then handing off to a bickering coalition, yielding the current bloody stalemate. It's been a foreign policy of hesitation, delay and indecision, marked by plaintive appeals to the (fictional) "international community" to do what only America can.
But that is not the way Stanley Kurtz , the political analyst for National Review, sees it. He argues (5/11) that what seems to be vacillating indecisiveness is actually totally consonant with the precepts of what he calls "redistributive transnational governance."
Writing on the same theme in a lead article for Commentary (7/11), Douglas Feith and Joseph Cropsey call Obama's foreign policy, "selfconstrainment." Both versions are a form of Postnationalism and draw heavily on the writings of Obama's inner circle of foreign policy advisors. The common gist runs somewhat as follows:
The bullying, go-it-alone policy followed by previous administrations has only served to injure the US and the countries it has presumed to help. The US has become reviled throughout the world. The first step to initiating the new foreign policy is for the US to apologize big time. Further, the US must subordinate its naïve concept of self-interest to the interests of international institutions. In fact such enlightened self-interest will redress US reputation abroad and effect the desirable consequence of expanding democracy and stability worldwide and actually enhance US power. The US can, somewhat paradoxically, achieve its goals of democracy and stability precisely by giving up its naïve concept self-interest and adopting a policy of intelligent self-interest which must involve, to a certain degree, subordinating itself to world and regional institutions from the UN to UNSC to NATO to the Arab League.
It is not the purpose here, however, to asses or get into the details of the Obama postnationalist agenda but, for reference, these matters are deftly explained and summarized in a recent AT article by Marcia Sielaff.
What is of interest here is the point that if Obama is following some sort of a postnationalist agenda, he is not being upfront about it. This is pointed out especially in the Kurtz article:
Both Obama and Power are skilled at placing their ultimate ideological goals just out of sight, behind a screen of practical problem-solving. [snip]
Yet without fully articulating it (and that reticence is intentional), Obama and Power are attempting to accustom us to a whole new way of thinking about war, and about America's place in the world.
It seems we have two rather damning interpretations of Obama's foreign policy or lack thereof. Either Obama is vacillating and clueless or a stealth follower of some form of postnationalism. If the latter is the case then our president is a sneak. The mindset that justifies following a stealth foreign policy is the typical Progressive mindset that the public is too witless to understand the enlightened and morally superior policies of progressives. Such policies must then be instituted by stealth, subterfuge, and Orwellian language. The condescension is palpable.
Obama: dithering, clueless, and vacillating or a condescending sneak with a superiority complex? Nice choice. But wait! There is a third choice. Writing for WaPo, Fareed Zakaria ("Stop Searching for an Obama Doctrine," 7/6/11) asserts that the time for grand doctrines is over:
In all these cases, what marks administration policy is a careful calculation of costs and benefits. The great temptation of modern American foreign policy, from Versailles to Vietnam to Iraq, has been to make grand declarations - enunciate doctrines - that then produce huge commitments and costs. We are coming off a decade of such rhetoric and interventions and are still paying the price: more than $2 trillion, not to mention the massive cost in human lives. In that context, a foreign policy that emphasizes strategic restraint is appropriate and wise.
Notice that Zakaria, while eschewing "grand declarations" or doctrines, is still maintaining that Obama has a foreign policy of "strategic restraint." Does this sound familiar? The "selfconstrainment" of Feith and Cropsey? The "redistributive transnational governance" of Kurtz? As Michael Green points out, writing for Foreign Policy:
There is a difference between doctrine and strategy. Doctrines articulate aspirations for strategy and are therefore arguably expendable. Strategy is not. Small powers can go without grand strategies. Great powers cannot. Either the United States seeks to shape the direction of key regions like the Middle East and Asia, or it perpetually reacts to the initiative of revisionist powers and forces within those regions until friends and allies lose confidence and American preeminence is undermined. If there is a doctrine we don't need right now, it is the faux realism and abdication of international leadership represented in "strategic restraint."
It seems we are back to two alternatives.