What are the roots of Barack Obama’s foreign policy? Some focus on the man and his flaws of character, particularly his inability to learn from his mistakes and to adjust his ideas to changing facts on the ground. Others see more sinister motives, an animus against the United States that drives policies diminishing America’s power and influence. Old bad ideas like one-world internationalism and the power of diplomacy to resolve conflicts have played a major role. And of course, domestic political considerations enter into his foreign policy calculations.
Whatever the origins, the end result of Obama’s foreign policy has been a weakening of America’s global clout and respect, one unseen since the Carter administration. One way to make sense of these serial disasters is to see them as the predictable result of a schizophrenic foreign policy that has indulged simultaneously stealth isolationism and “moralizing internationalism,” as historian Corelli Barnett called it.
Isolationism is the default attitude of Americans toward relations with other nations. From the beginning, protected by two oceans, our citizens assumed they could keep their distance from the dynastic power-struggles rending Europe. These sentiments are frequently expressed in the speeches of early presidents. In his First Inaugural Address Jefferson noted that the U.S. was “Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe.” Given that advantage, he counseled “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” John Quincy Adams in 1821similarly declared the U.S. a “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” but it “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”
Of course even then, the U.S. could not remain aloof from an increasingly globalized economy that implicated us in world affairs. The War of 1812 was in part an extension of the Napoleonic Wars and involved disputes over international trade and the dominance of Great Britain’s fleets over the “wide ocean” Jefferson thought would protect us. Yet even as economic globalization and new technologies shrank the world and implicated America even further in its affairs, isolationism remained a powerful political force. After World War I, when 2 million Americans served abroad, isolationist sentiment kept the Senate from ratifying the Versailles Treaty and involving America in the League of Nations. Most American shared the sentiments of Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote in 1919, “I do not believe in keeping our men on the other side to patrol the Rhine.”
Idealistic internationalism, however, particularly the active promotion of democracy, has been another powerful strain of American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson, of course, was the staunch promoter of this ideal. In his 1917 speech asking Congress for a declaration of war against the Central Powers, Wilson famously said the U.S. must help “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world,” for “peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations.” Thus “the world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” American citizens “are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”
Such idealism was seemingly vindicated in World War II by our success in destroying the tyrannies of Nazism, fascism, and Japanese racist imperialism; and by the role our money and occupying forces played in reconstructing Germany and Japan and creating the global economic order. The half-century Cold War against a nuclear armed Soviet Union, through marked by outbursts of isolationism, eventually was won, once again proving America to be the world’s “indispensible nation,” the “sheriff” necessary to police the global economy’s “shopkeepers,” as Robert Kagan puts it.
This international idealism transcends party. In the heady days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush in his 1991 State of the Union address extolled the “new world order,” one “where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind––peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.” His son George W. Bush sounded the same Wilsonian notes in the 2002 National Security Strategy, in which the foreign policy of the U.S. would be the promotion of the “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society.” Thus the U.S. will strive “to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.”
Barack Obama came into office endorsing this same idealist rhetoric, though he has preferred multilateral diplomacy to force. Leftist ideology has always been internationalist, assuming a moral responsibility on the part of the developed nations to spend its money and diplomatic persuasion on uplifting those countries still mired in political thuggery and material squalor. Thus the rich nations have a “responsibility to protect,” as the U.N. calls it, even at the expense of national sovereignty. The involvement of Samantha Power––whose work on genocide gave impetus to this doctrine––in Obama’s administration, currently as U.N. Ambassador, testifies to his endorsement of this internationalist ideal.
More important Obama’s own speeches have revealed the idealist side of his foreign policy personality. In his now infamous Cairo speech of 2009, he said, “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”
Obama’s reaction to the brief-lived “Arab Spring” revolts reprised this idealism. Speaking in 2012 at the U.N., he endorsed “the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully; that diplomacy can take the place of war; that in an interdependent world, all of us have a stake in working towards greater opportunity and security for our citizens.” And echoing George W. Bush, he asserted, “Freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values––they are universal values.” Democracy “is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.”
Obama’s interventions abroad have seemingly reflected this idealism. His participation in the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, ostensibly because he threatened to slaughter some of his opponents, or his numerous statements about the need of Syria’s Bashar al Assad “to go” or the “red line” he drew against the use of chemical weapons, are just two examples of the “responsibility to protect” that reflects modern “moralizing internationalism.”
So much for Obama’s idealistic side. But what he has discovered is that enforcing such idealism requires massive violence and an open-ended occupation in order to create stability and a just political-social order. Yet Obama campaigned on ending two wars that he rightly judged Americans were sick of, and that his leftist proclivities considered “unjust” and neo-imperialist versions of the Vietnam War, the left’s enduring example of American power-hunger and greed disguised as liberation. Hence Obama has shown the isolationist side of his foreign policy personality––must ruinously by rushing for the exit in Iraq with now obvious baleful consequences–– while masking it with a patina of moralizing internationalism.
Syria is the most recent example. Having blustered about “red lines” but unwilling to act vigorously enough to enforce them, he gambled on isolationist sentiment––one CNN poll found 70% of Americans opposed to military strikes against Assad–– and in 2013 asked Congress for a resolution authorizing such strikes. The effort failed, and Obama was off the hook until Assad’s grisly depredations and the rise of ISIS raised the political cost of inaction. But true to his schizophrenia, he authorized what have been in effect symbolic actions: a bungling half-a-billion-dollar “training program” for Syrian rebels produced a handful of fighters and has just been deep-sixed; and the air campaign against ISIS has averaged 11 sorties a day, a third of which don’t even drop their bombs.
As we have learned since 9/11, idealism requires brute military force and a willingness to stay in the region indefinitely. But military action with some very few exceptions in order to succeed needs boots on the ground to kill the enemy and then the occupation of territory. Obama’s aversion to force and the deployment of troops abroad preclude such action. Hence the schizophrenia: the “responsibility to protect” incoherently coexisting with the aversion to going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”
Obama may be acting from ideology or cold political calculation. But it should be pointed out that many Americans are equally schizophrenic. A recent poll revealed that 57% of Americans favor sending in ground troops to fight ISIS, but 85% fear that “intervention in Iraq and Syria will lead to a long and costly involvement.” In other words, “do something” to stop the brutality disturbing our breakfasts, but keep the cost in time, money, and American lives low. But the use of mass violence cannot be that finely calibrated, its outcomes, costs, and consequences precisely foreseen. The attempt to do so by mixing idealism with isolationism, as Obama has shown, is a recipe for foreign policy failure.