I arrived in Europe this week to a torrent of continental outrage that has an odd "back to the future" feel about it. Led by the leaders of France and Germany, European heads of state and their incensed publics are denouncing the U.S. president for what they see as overly aggressive national security practices that violate international law and smack of American unilateralism and arrogance. Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and (of course) the Guardian pile on with new revelations and editorial denunciations of perfidious American policies. In short, European abhorrence over the Obama administration's policies in 2013 looks and feels much like European abhorrence over the Bush administration's policies in 2003.
This is all somehow simultaneously disquieting and reassuring. Disquieting because as a committed Atlanticist I worry about yet another point of tension in the fraying of transatlantic relations. Already an inward-looking United States has sent multiple signals of passivity and disengagement to its European allies on issues including Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, and the ongoing eurozone economic fragilities. The American stock of diplomatic capital with Europeans is diminished, and in this context l'affaire Snowden and its fallout about surveillance policies only make things worse, especially since the United States still needs robust cooperation from its EU allies on many issues, counterterrorism among them -- the political will for which is now further diminished.
At the same time, the European outrage is oddly reassuring insofar as in its wake might come notes of realism and perspective to both sides of the Atlantic. For President Barack Obama and his senior team, I hope that this will encourage them not to confuse the (much diminished) overseas appeal of Obama's personality with support for his national security policies, and instead marshal a new measure of substantive transatlantic outreach. Likewise, perhaps now the White House will adopt a more humble awareness of its own fallibility and maybe even at last express public gratitude for the counterterrorism policies that George W. Bush developed and Obama has embraced -- rather than the tiresome cheap shots that the president indulged in during his National Defense University speech in May. Meanwhile, for European heads of state this likely marks the final denouement, after a steady five year decline, of their enraptured delusions about Obama. Gideon Rachman puts it well in July 1's Financial Times: "It has taken a long time, but the world's fantasies about Barack Obama are finally crumbling. In Europe, once the headquarters of the global cult of Obama, the disillusionment is particularly bitter." Once this latest spate of European umbrage passes, as it will, American and European leaders would do well to engage in a private, candid dialogue about the threats of terrorism and Middle Eastern instability and the shared transatlantic responsibilities to respond.
It is no small irony that Tuesday Obama and Bush appeared together in Tanzania and jointly commemorated the 1998 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The two U.S. presidents displayed solidarity in Africa in the fight against terrorism at the very same time that Obama is being reviled in Europe for aggressive counterterrorism measures in much the same manner that Bush was. Sometimes bipartisan continuity in American national security policy appears in unusual ways, and unlikely places.
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Toward the end of President Barack Obama's first year in office, I had dinner with a senior White House official, and in the course of the meal I asked my friend whether Obama believed himself to be a "wartime president." I was trying to get a sense of the new president's assessment of the priorities and burdens of his office and his view of national security issues. My dining partner responded defensively with a rather huffy and evasive answer that boiled down to "of course President Obama supports our troops." Even making allowance for the still-raw aftereffects of the 2008 presidential campaign and Obama's strenuous efforts to distinguish himself from what he saw as the excessive militarism of the Bush years, our exchange was revealing. Yes, Obama would still quietly pursue an aggressive set of counterterrorism measures modeled on the Bush framework. Yes, he would surge a large number of new forces to Afghanistan. But he did not see himself, and did not want to see himself, as a "wartime president."
This exchange has come to mind in recent weeks as Obama has struggled with a new set of national security challenges. His National Defense University speech on May 23 may have been intended to gain the domestic political benefit of declaring an end to America's wartime posture, but the new revelations of National Security Agency surveillance measures, the about-face on arming the Syrian rebels, and the looming crossroads with the Iranian nuclear program are all reminders that threats and conflict are not so easily spoken away.
In the case of arming the Syrian rebels, Obama's evident reluctance and the limited, too little, too late nature of the aid show that this was hardly a great moment in presidential leadership. In New York Times correspondent Peter Baker's description, Obama "had to be almost dragged into the decision at a time when critics, some advisers and even Bill Clinton were pressing for more action. Coming so late into the conflict, Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome." Andrew Sullivan, generally an effusive Obama supporter who opposes any Syria intervention, was even more scathing:
I hate to say it but this president looks as if he is worse than weak here. He is being dragged around by events and pressures like a rag doll. And this news that we are entering the war with military supplies is provided by Ben Rhodes, not the president. That's nothing against Ben, but when a president is effectively declaring war, don't you think he has a duty to tell the American people why and what he intends to achieve?
Obama's Syria decision seems to have accomplished that rarest of feats in Washington: uniting virtually all commentators from left, right, and center in criticism of it. Whether the critics think this limited package of arms is too little to make a difference, or too much U.S. involvement, pretty much all agree that Obama doesn't seem to believe in his own policy and that the policy holds little prospect for success.
Instead, we have Obama reverting to one of his least appealing tendencies in trying to explain his Syria policy: professorial lecturing. Thus in his Charlie Rose interview this week, Obama said, "If you haven't been in the Situation Room, poring through intelligence and meeting directly with our military folks and asking, what are all our options, and examining what are all the consequences.... Unless you've been involved in those conversations, then it's kind of hard for you to understand the complexities of the situation." As a professor myself (who has to guard against this same tendency), I often tell my students that one telltale sign of policy confusion and ineffectiveness is when a leader sanctimoniously describes the "complexity" of the situation.
Even more suspicious is when a leader invokes the "SitRoom excuse," as Obama also did, as a defense for not having a more coherent policy. Unfortunately for Obama's use of the SitRoom excuse on Syria, many others who have spent a lot of time in the SitRoom -- such as many of his own cabinet and staff members, let alone most members of Shadow Government including yours truly -- also know that his Syria policy has been a failure.
There seems to be a profound disconnect between the Obama administration's rhetoric of wars ending and the actual world it faces, let alone some of the administration's ongoing (and necessary) counterterrorism policies. One of Obama's biggest deficiencies as commander in chief is a reluctance to lead his own nation -- another unfortunate variation of "leading from behind." If the country still faces the threat of jihadi terrorism (and it does), if it is intervening in Syria (and it is), then the commander in chief needs to explain to the American people why, and enlist their support. This applies to the ongoing measures for combatting terrorism as well as increased U.S. involvement in Syria. Rather, Obama seems to want to derive the political benefit of claiming to end war while simultaneously pursuing wartime policies. The White House can't have it both ways.
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Many debates about policy debates are at their core debates about theology. Even people who would not consider themselves very religious often have an implicit set of assumptions about human nature, a divine will, and spiritual values that shape human rights and obligations, policy preferences, and convictions. This is especially true in the United States, as the nation has a long and rich history of public theology, exemplified by figures as diverse as the Founders, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and most recently President Barack Obama.
In foreign policy, this policy-as-theology debate was on display at last week's Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in the speeches by Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio. The differences were especially notable given that Paul and Rubio both cited the same biblical passage (the Sermon on the Mount) and both focused on the issue of international religious freedom. Yet they used different interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount to advance contrasting visions of America's role in the world.
Paul spoke eloquently about the plight of persecuted Christians overseas, a woefully neglected issue. But his only suggested policy response was to cut off U.S. foreign aid to any country where Christians are targeted. This may have a certain emotive appeal, but it is completely ineffective in dealing with many nations where the persecution of Christians is severest, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, North Korea, Sudan, and Eritrea -- none of which receive development aid from the United States. He made no mention of any other policy measures or initiatives to combat religious persecution in nations where the United States doesn't have the (limited) leverage of foreign aid.
I can recall no utterance of Jesus in favor of war or any acts of aggression. In fact, his message to his disciples was one of nonresistance. I do not believe that means that we don't defend ourselves.… I simply can't imagine Jesus at the head of any army of soldiers.… Jesus, himself, reminds us of this in the Sermon on the Mount, when he proclaims, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."
This no doubt reflects Paul's policy convictions, but it is poor scriptural exegesis. First, it obscures the important distinction between Jesus's exclusively messianic mission and the various roles of Christian citizens (e.g., Jesus didn't run for political office either, but that doesn't mean that Paul as a professing Christian is wrong to hold office). Second, it disregards the biblical distinction between individual conduct and the mandated role of government to "wield the sword" (see Romans 12:9-13:8) that is a cornerstone of the Christian just-war tradition. Politically, Paul's speech was also curious, as it reflects the Social Gospel theological liberalism of the early 20th century that is historically anathema to the Christian conservatives of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. In short, with these hints of pacifism and isolation, Paul sounds in theological terms like a 21st-century Harry Emerson Fosdick.
Rubio also invoked the Sermon on the Mount in his call for American Christians to be involved in the world. Rubio's chosen passage was Matthew 5: 13-16 (just four verses after the one Paul cited):
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
This passage embodies an enduring theme in American history. From its invocation in 1630 by Puritan leader John Winthrop in his famous sermon, the "city upon a hill" motif has been cited by American presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Reagan as a model for the nation's role in the world. Rubio, however, concentrated his remarks on the less-cited passage about the salt of the earth and derived from it the imperative for Christians to play a "preservative" role in the world. He specifically applied it to the issue of religious persecution and urged American foreign policy to be more vigorous in promoting human rights and liberty abroad.
I am sure that both Paul and Rubio are equally sincere and equally fervent in their concern about religious persecution. But both as a matter of hermeneutics and of policy, I find Rubio's remarks more compelling. Just in the case of persecuted religious minorities alone, effective policies to promote religious liberty will entail active American involvement and the full suite of diplomatic tools, as Rubio implies but Paul avoids. Although Rubio's speech occasionally glossed over the distinction between biblical admonitions to individual Christians and conduct by the nation-state, overall he offered a more theologically coherent and convincing case for American leadership in a turbulent world. At a time when the nation suffers understandable fatigue and faces growing domestic pressures for retrenchment, this is a welcome reminder that many others in the world still look to the United States to play a distinctive role.
Photo by Wolfgang Moroder/Wikimedia Commons/Fresco by Franz Xaver Kirchebner in the parish church of Ortisei, Italy
Facing a series of significant foreign policy challenges, the Obama administration appears to be responding with an array of diplomatic initiatives built around negotiations. Thus, the White House hopes to convene a diplomatic conference on the Syrian war in Geneva , and to launch a dialogue with China on cybersecurity, both to take place in July. Meanwhile, the administration still hopes to resume yet another round of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.
The problem in each of these cases is not that the Obama administration is following a diplomatic track. The problem is that the White House and State Department seem to be pursuing negotiations from a posture of weakness, and are not taking the needful steps to strengthen their negotiating hand. Diplomacy always takes place in the context of facts on the ground, and in each of these cases America's adversaries are doing a better job of creating facts on the ground more favorable to their positions. Meanwhile, perhaps seduced by the false dichotomy of thinking that diplomacy is always an alternative to the use of force rather than often a complement to force, the Obama administration may be setting up its various diplomatic gambits for failure.
Take Syria. While Secretary Kerry is begging and cajoling various parties to agree to attend the peace conference, in the war itself the Assad regime's patrons such as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are helping Damascus regain the battlefield initiative against the rebels through substantial weapons upgrades and territorial advances. Even if the Geneva gathering does take place next month, it will occur in circumstances far more favorable to Assad and his backers - and will consequently be far less likely to lead to Assad's departure and any viable settlement.
In the case of China, the White House in recent weeks has at last begun publicly speaking out against China's state-sponsored hacking of American military and commercial targets, but the only real action in response seems to be a call for dialogue because, in the words of a senior administration official "we need to develop some norms and rules." Well, yes, developing norms and rules would be nice, but the immediate issue is much simpler: the Chinese government needs to stop stealing technology from American companies, and needs to stop engaging in low-grade acts of cyberwar against the American military. China will continue this cyberwarfare as long as it can do so without any consequences - and a diplomatic dialogue or even "sternly-worded demarche" from the State Department do not count as consequences. Especially since Beijing has proven very artful at using dialogues as diversionary tactics to resist taking concrete policy steps, with the episodic U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue being just one example (an especially sad reminder of the failures of U.S. human rights policy as this week marks the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre).
Iran, meanwhile, is starting to resemble "Groundhog Day," with Tehran pursuing a salami slicing strategy of incrementally advancing its nuclear program while sporadically coming back to the negotiating table. Here at least the US diplomatic strategy has included coercive instruments such as economic sanctions and other measures. But as Mike Singh and others have repeatedly pointed out, missing has been a credible, unambiguous threat from the U.S. of the use of force. It is just such a credible threat that would, ironically, reduce the likelihood of war by showing the Iranian regime that a diplomatic solution is their best and only option.
Looking at history, many previous negotiations succeeded because of the strong hand the U.S. wielded. Nixon and Kissinger used the Linebacker bombing campaigns to strengthen the American position in the Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War. Reagan's diplomatic outreaches to Gorbachev took place amidst America's enhanced military posture, development of the Strategic Defense Initiative that drove the Russians nuts, and pressure on the Soviet periphery through support for insurgents in places like Afghanistan. The Clinton administration had a strong hand to play in negotiating the Dayton Accords thanks to Operation Deliberate Force.
In contrast, the Obama administration has dealt itself a weak hand in its various diplomatic initiatives. This is not at all to say that diplomacy should be abandoned, but rather that the White House should look for ways to approach negotiations with incentives for the other side to change its behavior. In Syria, this could mean steps like arming the rebels or imposing no-fly zones. With China, it could mean engaging in some retaliatory cyber-measures against Unit 61398 (one hopes this is already being done?), so that when Chinese officials sit down for the dialogue they will do so knowing that refusing to cooperate will carry costs. In the case of Iran, the regime needs to know that its choices are a negotiated settlement or the destruction of its nuclear program.
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All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.
Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.
Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago.
For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"
Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith.
Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:
Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.
Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.
One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?
Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?
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Walter Russell Mead has just published his assessment of the Bush foreign policy legacy. He describes it as "Part One," which hints that more is forthcoming. But there is plenty to chew on in this first epistle.
Let me say up front that Mead's Via Meadia blog is one of the few genuine "must-reads" in the blogosphere, that I am very often in agreement with much of what he writes there, and that I consider Walter a personal friend and intellectual mentor. The Economist calls Mead the "bearded sage," and it is an apt appreciation. I regularly assign his books to my students, and they are among the favorite class readings each semester.
So I have tried to weigh his words carefully, and there is much truth in his account. Iraq and Afghanistan were riddled with strategic and tactical mistakes. American diplomacy, especially during the first term, often was clumsy and needlessly provocative. Don't just take my or Mead's word for it -- former President Bush himself has acknowledged as much.
As it says in the Good Book, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." As an erstwhile supporter of many Bush Administration policies and as a consistent friend of reasoned discourse, wise policy, and America's national interests, Mead's words should be considered and taken in the irenic and constructive spirit they are intended.
So what hath Mead wrought? Part of the question concerns his intended purpose, which seems to veer back and forth between a political assessment of the Bush years' damage to the GOP brand in the minds of voters, and a policy assessment of Bush's overall national security legacy. The two are related but still distinct. A healthy political assessment would entail two things: On policy mistakes, it means Republicans engaging in healthy public discussion of where and why we got things wrong, and on policy successes it means describing the things we did get right -- especially in the first drafts of history now being written.
My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy.
Just as a catalogue of the Bush administration's mistakes and deficiencies, there is much Mead cites to contemplate, including many aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Heck, I could even add a few other items to the list, such as the mistaken policy in the 2007-2008 window of easing pressure and offering inducements to the North Korean regime in the vain hopes that then-dictator Kim Jong Il would relinquish his nuclear weapons.
But as an effort to take a comprehensive stock of the Bush administration's foreign policy, to weigh the Bush legacy as a whole, well, even bearded sages are not infallible oracles (nor, in fairness, would a good Anglican like Mead claim infallibility!). Mead overlooks many strategic successes of the Bush administration and in places seems to blame Bush for things that did not occur on his watch. In short, reading this assessment seems rather like reading an account of Reagan's presidency that highlights major failings like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, serious rifts with European allies, and increases in deficit spending -- but then somehow fails to mention Reagan's leadership in the Cold War's dénouement and Soviet defeat. Or like reading an account of the Truman administration that only describes the quagmire of the Korean war, the fall of China to communism, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb -- but fails to mention the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and other successful foundations of American Cold War policy.
No, no, I am not simply equating Reagan or Truman with Bush. What I am saying is this: In the main strategic threat the Bush faced as president, of Islamist terrorism, he succeeded in the overarching goal after September 11 of protecting the nation from any other large-scale terrorist attack. This possibility, almost unthinkable in the weeks and months after 9/11, is a first-order success and important context for the Bush record. Yet Mead does not mention it at all. Nor does he mention another revealing validation of the Bush legacy: the fact that the Obama administration has largely embraced the entire Bush counterterrorism system and strategic framework.
Turning to Bush's freedom agenda, Mead seems to imply that the current instability and chaos of the Arab Awakening are somehow Bush's fault, or at least can fairly be ascribed to the Bush administration by the American public (e.g. "the argument that Bush's Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics"). But this is caricature. It overlooks two fundamentally important points. First, Bush in 2003 made the strategic insight that the old order of American support for sclerotic autocracies across the Middle East simply was not tenable. The autocracies were fragile, corrupt, oppressive, and unsustainable as stable pillars of a strategic order. Second, Bush called for supporting political reform and human liberty as an urgent alternative to popular revolution.
In other words, Bush tried to put the United States on the side of Arab and Persian popular aspirations for more accountable governance before things boiled over into rioting in the streets, as began in December 2010 in Tunisia. It is simply a false choice to imply that the Arab autocracies could have continued indefinitely, as stable custodians of order in a fractious region. Instead, better to push for peaceful reforms within those systems while it was still possible. So while Bush can be credited with predicting that something like the Arab Awakening would eventually happen, he should not be blamed for the disappointments when it actually did take place. (The Obama administration, on the other hand, will likely not be judged well by history for its confused and negligent policies toward the Arab and Persian revolutions).
Mead also completely fails to mention another important Bush legacy, one that arguably might be more consequential as history unfolds: building the foundation for a new strategic order in Asia. From the strategic opening to India, to strengthened alliances with traditional friends like Japan and Australia and new partnerships with emerging powers like Vietnam, to the dual-track framework of engagement and dissuasion towards China, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for continued American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic region of the 21st century. Again, wisdom is vindicated by her children. After some Asia-policy missteps in its first year, the Obama administration pivoted (sorry, couldn't resist) back to the Bush strategic framework for Asia.
There are many other Bush successes and legacies that Mead fails to mention, including one of the most successful public health programs in history (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief targeted in sub-Saharan Africa), extensive free trade agreements, expansion of ballistic missile defense (for which the Obama White House is now very thankful), Libya's relinquishment of its WMD program, the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan that laid the groundwork for South Sudan's independence, and the first official presidential commitment to Palestinian statehood, just to cite a few. On balance and in the whole, the Bush foreign policy legacy stands a good chance of being judged more favorably in history than by the conventional wisdom today.
What does all of this mean for Mead's main point? He is right that Republicans need to come to terms with the Bush administration's legacy. Yet what complicates that is the implicit demand by many in the media and punditocracy that "coming to terms" requires "embracing the caricature." Peddling the Bush caricature may help the electoral prospects of Democrats, but what would help Republicans more -- and the cause of constructive debate overall -- is an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive assessment of the Bush foreign policy. Which in truth is far more nuanced than the incomplete assessment, verging on caricature, which emerges from Mead's "part one." I am hopeful that "part two" will be more judicious.
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If readers of ForeignPolicy.com have detected a "West Coast" vibe to the website this week, that's because many of us regular contributors are currently attending the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. From Foreign Policy's ranks I've enjoyed seeing Dan Drezner, David Bosco, Steve Walt, and Peter Feaver, among others, in the halls and at different panels.
Today I spoke on a panel titled "Christian Realism in the White House? An Assessment of Reinhold Niebuhr's Influence on Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." Given the recent resurgence of interest in Niebuhr, prompted in part by then-candidate Obama's own favorable comments about Niebuhr to David Brooks in 2007, I thought I would share the following summary of my remarks.
The first disclaimer is that we should not and cannot try to ascertain "what would Niebuhr say today about x or y issue," because to do so wrenches Niebuhr out of his own time and place. Niebuhr's own beliefs can be very elusive; his public career spanned roughly a half century that began with World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, Soviet communism, the nuclear age, two land wars in Asia, the birth of Israel, and multiple wars in the Middle East, just to mention a few. The very fact that he acted in history, in a particular time, place, and context, should caution and perhaps even chasten us against too readily attempting to appropriate him for our own 21st century purposes. To do so would be to do violence to his prophetic voice and to his own contingencies as a historical actor.
The second cautionary note follows from the first, and it is against the trap that Paul Elie memorably described as turning Niebuhr into "A Man for All Reasons," as various public personalities try to claim the mantle of Niebuhr for their own various ideologies or favored issues across the political spectrum. Niebuhr's thought has wisdom for all of us, but endorsements for none of us.
But historical context does not mean historical silence, and Niebuhr's body of ideas still has much to say of contemporary relevance. He is not so embalmed in the past that we cannot reflect on his principles for the world today. In that respect, I would apply four Niebuhrian themes to President Obama's foreign policy, two affirmations, and two critiques.
First, I see two Niebuhrian resonances in Obama's foreign policy:
1) American Limits. This is one of the most visible Niebuhrian themes in Obama's foreign policy -- an appreciation of the limits of American power. The Obama White House has made explicit that this is in part their reaction to the perceived excesses of the Bush administration's confidence in American power, and also to a realization of the constraints on American action in an era of severe fiscal austerity and extended military deployments. This notion of limits pervades Niebuhr's thought and is especially pronounced in the Irony of American History. To take just one illustrative quote from this book, written in 1952 in the midst of one of America's most dominant positions in the international system, "our own nation ... is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy."
2) "Dirty Hands." To the surprise of most of his supporters and detractors alike, President Obama has been very aggressive in his use of force against terrorists, terrorism supporters, and those suspected of terrorist intentions. These tactics, most especially the drone campaign, are morally ambiguous across multiple dimensions, including the questions of preventive action, noncombatant immunity, and executive authority. Yet this willingness to wield force, to get "dirty hands" in the quest for proximate justice and to defeat a greater evil, is a classic Niebuhrian theme. As Niebuhr once wrote of American nuclear policy in the early Cold War "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization."
Two other Niebuhrian themes are critical of Obama's foreign policy:
3) Ideological Lassitude: The Obama administration has done little to articulate the ideological stakes in the conflict with militant Islamism, either to define what we seek to defend or what we fight against. Obama speaks occasionally of a "war against al Qaeda and associated groups" but has done little to develop and articulate either an analysis of the ideological comprehension of al Qaeda or of the ideological distinctiveness of the United States and allies and partners fighting against this foe. Such a neglect of the ideational dimension of a conflict is alien to Niebuhrian thought. Much of his life's intellectual work can be considered an extended defense of democratic civilization, exemplified by The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, even as he was also one of the most persistent critics of democratic illusions and propensities to self-righteousness. Niebuhr also devoted considerable intellectual energies to probing the ideological nature of America's mid-century foes, be they German Nazism or Soviet Communism. Of the former, Niebuhr as early as June 1933 denounced Hitler for imposing a "totalitarian" government in Germany that deified the state, and when he later resigned from the Socialist Party over his support for American entry into World War II, he wrote that "if Hitler is defeated in the end it will be because the crisis has awakened in us the will to preserve a civilization in which justice and freedom are realities, and given us the knowledge that ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history." Of Soviet communism, volumes could be devoted to Niebuhr's sustained critique, which included identifying it as a "monstrous evil" and "false religion" that deified both the state and the historical dialectic as the author of history, dangerously monopolized power, embodied utopian illusions, and embraced a materialist view of reality. In short, his advocacy for a robust American confrontation with the Soviet Union was based on a highly ideological understanding of the conflict.
This is not to imply that President Obama is not committed to democratic values or does not understand the ideological dimension of the conflict, but rather that he seems curiously reluctant to explain these themes to the American people and our allies. Just as the Obama administration's drone war takes place in the shadows, so also is the Obama administration's ideological rationale for the conflict confined to the shadows.
4) Unrealistic Pragmatism: The most extensive and sympathetic treatment of President Obama's thought comes from Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, whose book Reading Obama identifies Obama as a philosophical pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey. Niebuhr, however, criticized pragmatism as a flawed account of human nature and reality and regarded Dewey as one of his primary intellectual adversaries. In Niebuhr's mind, pragmatism was fundamentally unrealistic.
Niebuhrian principles would be suspicious of Obama's pragmatism, seeing in it both an undue confidence in his own reason and an unwarranted optimism about the possibilities of human nature and social organization. In other words, while Obama may appreciate the limits of American power, he seems less mindful of the limits on his own wisdom and virtue. This was perhaps revealed by his naïve offers of unconditional negotiation with rogue regimes in his first term, or his resistance to accountability for the drone campaign. In foreign policy terms, Niebuhrianism would also regard pragmatism as a cause of "muddling through," as experimentation unmoored from a broader set of strategic principles and foundational values. Such pragmatism is leery of democracy promotion and thus lacks a strategic framework to detect opportunities such as the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. This might help explain the Obama administration's tentative and erratic response to the Arab Awakening, with a half-hearted intervention in Libya, vacillations on Egypt, and negligence on Syria. In philosophical terms, pragmatism perhaps marks Obama's most significant deviation from Niebuhrianism.
Saturday's New York Times ran a front page story about what appears to be a serious internal rift in the Obama national security staff. At first glance, the story might look like a customary puff piece on NSC communications director Ben Rhodes, of the type written by cynical reporters willing to curry favor so as to maintain media access with the notoriously prickly Obama White House. The article portrays Rhodes as one of President Obama's most influential advisors and ascribes credit to Rhodes for just about every one of the administration's presumed foreign policy successes (e.g. the Libya intervention, Mubarak's exit from power, the strategic opening to Burma). By the end of the article one almost expects to read that Rhodes masterminded the Osama bin Laden operation too. It includes glowing testimonials to Rhodes' policy influence from several current and former Obama administration officials, making clear that Rhodes is more than just a speechwriter.
But noticeably missing from the article are any words of praise for Rhodes from the one person you would expect to weigh in on the piece: his immediate boss, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. I wonder if this is more than just that Donilon was "too busy to comment" and indicates a serious internal rift on the national security staff. It reads as if Rhodes has gone to the front page of the New York Times to publicly distance himself from his White House's negligence on Syria. Donilon is strongly associated with the Obama administration's posture of passivity on Syria and presumably was behind the White House's denial of recommendations last year by then-Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, Chairman Dempsey, and CIA Director Petraeus to arm the Syrian rebels. For one of Donilon's deputies like Rhodes to publicly criticize his boss's policy like this is no small matter. I wonder whether Donilon appreciated seeing the internal rift aired on the front page of the nation's paper of record.
Of course Donilon is not ultimately responsible for the White House's failed policy on Syria, President Obama is. The strategic disaster that Syria has become is a product of choices that Obama has made. This makes Rhodes' public disagreement with the administration all the more significant, since here is an Obama loyalist saying that the president is wrong. The article softens this point by uncritically repeating some White House spin, saying that "administration officials note that Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his frustration over Syria, pointing out that Mr. Obama, too, is searching for an American response that ends the humanitarian tragedy," followed by a hand-wringing quote from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But sifting through this cloying profile, a less flattering portrait emerges of a feuding administration and a failed policy.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.