Walt on Obama

Stephen Walt, somewhat ironically, argues that President Obama is not a realist.

He opens “Obama is in the homestretch of his presidency, and it is only human for him to care about how he will be judged after he leaves office. That impulse probably explains his decision to participate in a series of interviews with the Atlantic in which he defends his approach to foreign policy and explains why he has been reluctant to use American power as widely as his critics would have liked. Not surprisingly, this story has rekindled the recurring question of whether Obama has been running a “realist” foreign policy for the past seven-plus years — or at least one heavily informed by realist thinking. (One of our country’s sillier pundits once suggested I was the secret George Kennanguiding his actions; anyone who reads this column regularly knows that U.S. foreign policy would have been markedly different if that were in fact the case.) I understand why many people regard Obama as some sort of realist, but from where I sit, the nonrealist dimensions of his presidency are as prominent and important as any realist elements. And it is those nonrealist features that account for his most obvious foreign-policy failures”.

Walt makes the bold assertion that “future historians will rate Obama highly. He will be remembered for being America’s first nonwhite president, of course, and for conducting his office with dignity, grace, and diligence. His administration was blissfully scandal-free, and he didn’t make a lot of hasty decisions that turned out badly. He was admirably thick-skinned and charitable toward most of his critics, despite the abuse and thinly veiled racism he faced from some of them. And no matter who wins in November, he is likely to look mighty good by comparison”.

Indeed the reality is almost the complete opposite to what Walt claims, Obama is thin skinned, arrogant, full of scandals, some of which Walt himself has hypocritically criticised notably the Libya debacle. On the “lack” of hasty decisions the opposite is true, he took almost a year to decide on a short lived surge in Afghanistan, only to tell the Taliban his strategy on live television, he has done nothing on Syria which in and of itself has cause irreparable harm to US leadership globally and if it cannot be stopped will instead herald a new age in multipolar rivalry and instability that will be largely, though not solely, the fault of Obama.

Walt does correctly point out the significant domestic achievements, “As we look back, Obama will get credit for health care reform, for rescuing the country from the brink of another Great Depression, and for promoting greater tolerance toward minorities through legalization of gay marriage”.

Walt goes on to describe Obama’s foreign policy as a “mixed bag” he argues “relations with China have been mostly tranquil despite the U.S. “pivot” to Asia; and the nuclear deal with Iran is a qualified success so far. I’d also give Obama props for ending America’s long and counterproductive effort to ostracize Cuba”,

Correctly he notes that “Obama’s foreign-policy record also contains a sizable number of depressing failures, beginning with Afghanistan. Obama agonized over this issue during his first year in office and ultimately sent nearly 60,000 additional troops there. He promised this temporary “surge” would turn the tide against the Taliban and enable the United States to get out with honour. It is now 2016, the Taliban control more territory than at any time since 2001, and the United States is still fighting there with no end in sight. As some of uswarned at the time, this policy was destined to fail and fail it did. Similarly, Obama’s well-intentioned efforts to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians were a series of humiliations: Israeli settlements kept expanding, Gaza kept getting pummeled, moderate Palestinians were discredited, Hamas grew stronger, and the two-state solution that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all favoured is now dead (if not quite buried). Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry wasted a lot of time and energy on this problem and got bupkis”.

He goes on “Obama’s response to the “Arab Spring” was no more successful. The United States helped push Hosni Mubarak out in Egypt and backed the newly elected government of Mohamed Morsi, only to reverse course and turn a blind eye when a military coup ousted Morsi and imposed another thuggish dictatorship. U.S. air power helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a decision Obama now regrets), and the result is a failed state where the Islamic State is active. Obama declared “Assad must go” in Syria, despite there being no good way to ensure his departure and no good candidates to replace him, and then United States helped block the initial U.N. efforts to reach a cease-fire to end the fighting. Today, Syria is in ruins, and Assad still rules the country’s key areas. Obama and his team were also blindsided by the emergence of the Islamic State and by the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. It pains me to say so, but the Middle East will be in even worse shape when he leaves office than it was when he arrived. The United States is not solely responsible for this unfortunate trend, but our repeated meddling sowed additional chaos and alienated both friends and foes alike”.

Walt goes on to mention “Obama deserves low marks for his handling of Russia. I’m no fan of Vladimir Putin, but U.S. officials erred by openly siding with the demonstrators seeking to oust former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and by failing to anticipate how Russia was likely to respond. The result was a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, an embarrassment for the United States, and a more precarious situation in Europe, which hardly needed another problem on its agenda”.

Somewhat more controversially Walt writes that “Obama does have certain instincts that are consistent with a realist outlook. He recognizes that U.S. power is not unlimited and that military power is a crude instrument that cannot solve every problem. Like most contemporary realists, he thinks the United States is extremely secure and that nuclear terrorism and climate change are the only existential threats it faces for the foreseeable future. His belief that Asia is of rising strategic importance shows an appreciation for the key role that economic and military capability — that is, hard power — play in shaping world politics. Indeed, his emphasis on “nation building at home” reflects an acute awareness that domestic strength is the bedrock of national security and international influence. And like most realists, he thinks the idea that the United States needs to fight foolish wars in order to keep its “credibility” intact is dangerous nonsense. But on the other hand, the Atlantic story shows that Obama never fully embraced a realist worldview either. He thinks there are four main strategic alternatives for the United States: realism, liberal interventionism, internationalism, and isolationism. He rejects the latter completely and believes foreign-policy making involves picking and choosing from among the first three. And though he offers some tart criticisms of the interventionist “D.C. playbook,” Obama believes (along with most of the foreign-policy establishment) that the United States is an “exceptional” power and that American leadership is still “indispensable.” At bottom, he wants to have it both ways: to acknowledge there are limits to U.S. power and some problems it can safely ignore, but to still stand ready to intervene when vital interests are at risk or when U.S. power can produce positive results”.

While this criticism is valid, Walt overlooks the fact that for years he has called for greater “off shore balancing“. This policy, which has been carried out by Obama has led to a disaster that has endangered the credibility of American power and emboldened Russia, China and a host of other nations. Obama, and Walt, have paid no attention to the consequences of the actions they propagate on the global system of which the United States is the lead player. Time cannot move fast enough for Obama to leave and for a more strategic foreign policy to be enacted in 2017. The result of Obama’s foreign policy has been a half baked interventionism, or worse a half baked isolationism.

Walt does correctly write that “seven-plus years in office, this most articulate of presidents never articulated a clear and coherent framework identifying what those vital interests are and why and spelling out how the United States could advance broader political ideals at acceptable cost and risk. To be specific: What regions of the world were worth significant commitments of American blood and treasure? Why were these regions more important than others? Under what conditions is it advisable to put U.S. citizens in harm’s way in order to keep the rest of us safe? When will the costs and risks of action outweigh the potential benefits? And don’t forget the flip side: What regions or issues are of little or no importance to the United States and can safely be left to others? The Atlantic story suggests that Obama has asked himself these questions more than once and is comfortable with the answers he has come up with for each. He is said to believe the Middle East is of declining importance, for example, and that Asia is rising. But Obama never shared his overarching vision with the rest of us, and he never openly stated that some parts of the world lay outside the sphere of vital U.S. interests and were therefore not worth sending Americans to fight and die for. Instead of laying out a hierarchy of interests and explaining the logic behind his thinking, Obama’s public utterances mostly echoed and reinforced the familiar tropes of U.S. liberal hegemony”.

Walt does make the valid criticism that “His failure to define U.S. interests clearly and his tendency to recite the familiar rhetoric of liberal hegemony had several unfortunate consequences. First, it meant Obama faced constant pressure to “do something” whenever trouble beckoned in some distant corner of the world, but he had no overarching argument or principle with which to deflect the pressure (save for the correct but unhelpful dictum to avoid “stupid shit”). The danger, as the Libya debacle shows clearly, is that advocates of intervention will sometimes manage to override more sensible instincts and convince even a reluctant president to act, even though vital U.S. interests are not at stake and Washington has no idea what it is doing. In the absence of a clear strategy, stupid shit sometimes happens anyway. Second, because Obama kept saying U.S. leadership was indispensable, he was vulnerable to hard-line criticism whenever he tried to end a failed policy or avoid some new quagmire”.

Walt argues that “Free-riding and “reckless driving” by U.S. allies clearly bothers Obama, yet he spent considerable time and effort trying to convince many of these same allies they could count on Uncle Sam no matter what happened or what they did. What was the predictable result? U.S. allies continued to misbehave in various ways while getting angry and upset because Washington wasn’t doing everything they wanted. Foreign governments might have been equally disappointed had Obama told them why they had to do more to defend themselves, but at least they would have known where they stood (and so would the American taxpayer). Most importantly, because Obama never publicly embraced an unvarnished realist outlook or tried to explain this view to the American people, he never disrupted the “D.C. playbook” that he now disparages. During his first presidential campaign, he said he didn’t want to just end the Iraq War; he also wanted to “end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” The American people are in some ways already there, but the foreign-policy establishment hasn’t gotten the memo. The Atlantic story describes Obama as openly dismissive of the D.C. “think-tank complex,” but he appointed plenty of its members to prominent positions and embraced many of its shibboleths — most notably the indispensability of “U.S. leadership” — throughout his presidency”.

He ends “In short, Obama did not in fact run a “realist” foreign policy, because he doesn’t fully embrace a realist worldview, didn’t appoint many (any?) realists to key positions, and never really tried to dismantle the bipartisan consensus behind the grand strategy of liberal hegemony. As I’ve noted before, a genuinely “realist” foreign policy would have left Afghanistan promptly in 2009, converted our “special relationships” in the Middle East to normal ones, explicitly rejected further NATO expansion, eschewed “regime change” and other forms of social engineering in foreign countries such as Libya or Syria, and returned to the broad strategy of restrained “offshore balancing” that served the United States so well in the past. Of course, even if Obama had explained the logic behind this strategy carefully and followed it consistently, he might still have failed to transform the foreign-policy establishment’s interventionist mindset. After all, that worldview is supported by plenty of wealthy individuals, powerful corporations, influential think tanks, and well-connected lobbies. A more ambitious effort to change how Americans think about foreign policy might not have succeeded. But as his presidency approaches its close, I still wish he had tried.


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