Barack Obama is Not a Hippy
“If you rely on strength, when you hit the enemy’s sword you will inevitably hit too hard. If you do this, your own sword will be carried along as a result.” – Miyamoto Musashi
“The ultimate aim of the martial arts is not having to use them.” – Miyamoto Musashi
As we gear up for the foreign policy debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney next Tuesday perhaps it’s best to preemptively strike the talking points and find a real, essential separation between the two men.
George Friedman has been attempting just that:
“…what is happening in Syria is significant for a new foreign doctrine emerging in the United States — a doctrine in which the United States does not take primary responsibility for events, but which allows regional crises to play out until a new regional balance is reached. Whether a good or bad policy — and that is partly what the U.S. presidential race is about — it is real, and it flows from lessons learned…
…Given that there is a U.S. presidential election under way, this doctrine, which has quietly emerged under Obama, appears to conflict with the views of Mitt Romney, a point I made in a previous article. My core argument on foreign policy is that reality, not presidents or policy papers, makes foreign policy. The United States has entered a period in which it must move from military domination to more subtle manipulation, and more important, allow events to take their course. This is a maturation of U.S. foreign policy, not a degradation (emphasis CC). Most important, it is happening out of impersonal forces that will shape whoever wins the U.S. presidential election and whatever he might want. Whether he wishes to increase U.S. assertiveness out of national interest, or to protect human rights, the United States is changing the model by which it operates. Overextended, it is redesigning its operating system to focus on the essentials and accept that much of the world, unessential to the United States, will be free to evolve as it will.
This does not mean that the United States will disengage from world affairs. It controls the world’s oceans and generates almost a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product. While disengagement is impossible, controlled engagement, based on a realistic understanding of the national interest, is possible.
This will upset the international system, especially U.S. allies. It will also create stress in the United States both from the political left, which wants a humanitarian foreign policy, and the political right, which defines the national interest broadly. But the constraints of the past decade weigh heavily on the United States and therefore will change the way the world works.
The important point is that no one decided this new doctrine. It is emerging from the reality the United States faces. That is how powerful doctrines emerge. They manifest themselves first and are announced when everyone realizes that that is how things work.”
It’s worth reading Friedman’s earlier piece (referred to in the above quotation) to get an idea of what he thinks of the two candidates. To wit:
“Obama’s (foreign policy) perspective draws on that of the critics of the Cold War strategy of active balancing, who maintained that without a major Eurasian power threatening hemispheric hegemony, U.S. intervention is more likely to generate anti-American coalitions and precisely the kind of threat the United States feared when it decided to actively balance. In other words, Obama does not believe that the lessons learned from World War I and World War II apply to the current global system, and that as in Syria, the global power should leave managing the regional balance to local powers…
…Romney takes the view that active balancing is necessary. In the case of Syria, Romney would argue that by letting the system address the problem, Obama has permitted Iran to probe and retreat without consequences and failed to offer a genuine solution to the core issue. That core issue is that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq left a vacuum that Iran — or chaos — has filled, and that in due course the situation will become so threatening or unstable that the United States will have to intervene. To remedy this, Romney called during his visit to Israel for a decisive solution to the Iran problem, not just for Iran’s containment.”
I’m not sure this is quite correct. It seems the difference between the two foreign policy camps can be explained more by disconnect than by activity. The Obama Administration considers Iran less a threat than the Romney camp does. The idea that Romney seems to favor a more active solution to the problem of Iran is directly contradicted by his outsourcing that solution to regional superpower Israel.
Furthermore, Friedman seems to base his assessment of Obama on Obama the 2008 candidate and not on Obama the president. If Obama is restrained and inactive for passing on Syria and refusing to intervene in the European economic crisis, then isn’t George W. Bush just as restrained and inactive for not bombing North Korea?
Friedman concludes his earlier piece with this:
The world shapes U.S. foreign policy. The more active the world, the fewer choices presidents have and the smaller those choices are. Obama has sought to create a space where the United States can disengage from active balancing. Doing so falls within his constitutional powers, and thus far has been politically possible, too. But whether the international system would allow him to continue along this path should he be re-elected is open to question. Jimmy Carter had a similar vision, but the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan wrecked it. George W. Bush saw his opposition to nation-building wrecked by 9/11 and had his presidency crushed under the weight of the main thing he wanted to avoid.
Presidents make history, but not on their own terms. They are constrained and harried on all sides by reality. In selecting a president, it is important to remember that candidates will say what they need to say to be elected, but even when they say what they mean, they will not necessarily be able to pursue their goals. The choice to do so simply isn’t up to them. There are two fairly clear foreign policy outlooks in this election. The degree to which the winner matters, however, is unclear, though knowing the inclinations of presidential candidates regardless of their ability to pursue them has some value.
In the end, though, the U.S. presidency was designed to limit the president’s ability to rule. He can at most guide, and frequently he cannot even do that. Putting the presidency in perspective allows us to keep our debates in perspective as well.
Whether or not President Obama has actually tried to create that space, the idea that the modern presidency is an essentially powerless position is false. It is especially false when it comes to international relations. For confirmation of that look no further than the fact that Congress hasn’t declared war since 1942, yet since that time total deaths in U.S. wars is in the tens of millions.
In actuality, President Obama and Mitt Romney are two members of the same school of thought that really disagree on the minor details: which countries to bomb, which alliances to emphasize, which regions to stabilize, which regional powers to support (i.e. if you believe our focus should be on weakening Iran, vote for Romney; if you believe our focus should be on stabilizing Afghanistan, vote for Obama, etc.).
The modern presidency as practiced just begs the question of whether using force is in our interest to begin with.