American self-containment is now an established fact. Foreign leaders are deeply concerned at the disengagement of the United States from their countries and at the apathy of Americans toward their problems. The protestations of John Kerry at Davos, that the Obama Administration is not withdrawing America from a leadership role in the international order, seem not to have diminished concern. The choices the Obama Administration makes are too consistently at variance with Kerry’s mollifications.
Before President Obama’s election there were indicators of waning public support for an activist foreign and defense policy. Americans are not reflexive internationalists; we need to be persuaded into entangling alliances and into the cataclysm of world wars. The world seems a complicated and dangerous place to most Americans, and even though there’s resonance with Americans about promoting our values, it always comes with skepticism about the cost and effectiveness of exporting them.
This latent isolationism was reinforced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They took too long, cost too much, relied on complex strategies whose progress was difficult to ascertain, and produced unsatisfying outcomes. Iraq, especially, will cast a long shadow over future interventions. Preventative war is a difficult case to make, and turning up none of the weapons on which the case was predicated will make future preventive wars a much more difficult sale. Planning for and managing the war dented the public’s confidence that the government knew what it was doing and that the aims were achievable at a cost the public was willing to support. Arguments for “whole of government operations” only reinforced the incapacities of the American government to coordinate and sustain its action, as did expansive war aims that required transformation of whole societies.
There was also a desire to rebuild the foundations of our own national strength. Concern about stagnating real incomes, the disrepair of our physical infrastructure, quality of education, and ossification of social mobility were very much on Americans’ minds. But the Obama Administration encouraged rather than sought to counteract these pressures.
President Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq War. He stalled for time on Afghanistan—the good war, in his characterization—conducting two reviews that consumed nearly the first year of his presidency and culminated in a policy that gave military commanders too few troops and too little time to achieve the President’s objectives. In announcing his Afghanistan surge, the President pitted foreign and domestic policies against each other, arguing against his own approach by emphasizing the need “for nation-building here at home.” His White House sought media attention for a major shift in strategy, grandly unfurling a “pivot to the Pacific” that has so far consisted of following through on the Bush Administration’s decision to station 60 percent of American naval forces in that ocean, rotating a few thousand Marines through Australia, and alarming countries that believe they are being pivoted from—because whether or not it was a coherent strategic thought, the Administration’s choice conveyed that we would not remain engaged throughout the world but must choose one region upon which to concentrate our resources. President Obama initially opposed major trade agreements, waited nearly four years before getting ratification for those concluded during the Bush Administration, and now sits silent as his own party denies him the trade promotion authority essential to concluding Trans-Pacific and European agreements, the cornerstone of his second-term foreign policy.
“Leading from behind” may be the truest encapsulation of Obama’s strategic thought, for it conveys its sense of limited resources; a belief that other countries can and will, if forced by our inaction, undertake much of the work the United States has done in the past; a willingness to accept outcomes injurious to the international order; a morality that excuses inaction but condemns action; a profound discomfort with advancing our values as universal; and a primacy of domestic political considerations in national security decisions.
There is also in much of the Obama Administration’s approach a tacit belief that America has such a wide margin of error—so few things genuinely affect us—that we can afford the luxury of allowing a system very beneficial to our national interests to be chipped away or left unattended while we turn our focus inward. There is no sense that members of the Obama Administration consider themselves inheritors of a valuable legacy that must be sustained and passed on for the good of the country. So they left the integration of Ukraine to the European Union, only jumping into the fray after protesters in Kiev overthrew Yanukovych and the Russians took Crimea. By then, the President’s platitudes about a Europe whole, free, and at peace were already suspect, and it was obvious to both allies and enemies that the cost of returning to the status quo ante was higher than the Obama Administration was willing to pay. Theirs is, instead, an approach grounded in redress for the supposed wrongs of the past, especially the recent past. The triumphal notes of the President’s State of the Union address, in which he asserted American primacy was returning at the expense of other countries, showed how fundamentally this Administration believes we are competing for redistribution of limited resources rather than creating new opportunities that are mutually beneficial for ourselves and other countries.
Where foreign and defense policies are concerned, unless the President of the United States is willing to make the case for their importance and expend his political capital to undertake them, the American public is traditionally reticent about international obligations. In a national survey conducted for the Hoover Institution’s project on civil-military relations, only 1 percent of respondents believed the war in Afghanistan should be the President’s top priority; only 2 percent of respondents considered that terrorism should be—whereas 45 percent of people thought the economy should be the President’s top priority and 16 percent believed the deficit should be. President Obama is spending his time congruent with public attitudes; he is following but not shaping them.
Far from working to change public attitudes such that the public would be more supportive of assertive American policies, the Obama White House constantly stokes public concern in order to ensure such policies are not seriously considered. For example, in recently announcing a review of Syria policy, White House spokesman Jay Carney cautioned that “a desire to do something about it could lead us, the United States, to take action that can produce the kind of unintended consequences we’ve seen in the past.” This doesn’t expand the President’s range of choice on Syria; it seeks to foreclose involvement.
The only area in which President Obama does have an ambitious set of goals matched to action is on Iran—or, more accurately, on Iran’s nuclear programs. Because the Administration’s policies toward the democracy movement, human rights, fairness of elections, assassination of diplomats, Iranian infiltration of protest movements in Bahrain, harassment of shipping in the Arabian Gulf, Iranian support for terrorism, and even direct participation by Iranian Quds forces alongside Syrian troops, has been to subjugate all other American interests to that of containing Iran’s nuclear program. The narrowing of our interests to a single issue is in itself a diminution of our involvement.
And even within this narrower arc of concern about Iran and the destabilizing effects its actions have throughout and beyond the Middle East, the Administration has a policy so internally contradictory that it ties the President’s hands. Understanding that concern about his credibility on Iran had domestic political consequences, President Obama doubled down rhetorically, telling AIPAC that containment of a nuclear-armed Iran “is not an option.” But the White House declines to undertake the kind of military planning and political preparations that would make an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities domestically and internationally supported. The Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense testified that our intelligence on Iran is so precise that we know with certainty that it has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and we will know exactly when it does. Predicating our policy on such politicization of intelligence only further diminishes the credibility of that policy. And it has left a very dangerous gap between our declaratory policy and our actions, one less likely to deter Iran than it is to deter us.
The White House openly argues that it considers war the only alternative to negotiated limitation of Iran’s nuclear weapons programs; it even described additional sanctions as “a march toward war.” It is diplomatically activist only in the somewhat bizarre sense of trying to forestall having to carry out the President’s stated policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon—and seems once again not to realize how much its contradictory objectives undercut its policy.
The exception to the Obama Administration’s ebbing tide is Secretary Kerry’s activism on negotiations to produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The Secretary of State has been an engine of ideas and industry to create momentum. However, there are no indications the President is actually engaged or would be willing to expend much effort to achieve them. Would President Obama sacrifice any of his domestic agenda to achieve this—or any other foreign or defense policy objective? The world doubts it, and it is right to do so.
Concern about American self-containment will persist at least until we elect a President who believes, and acts, as though foreign and defense policy matter to the security of our country, who believes that they create benefits for us rather than detract from our domestic priorities. President Obama makes tough claims—“superpowers don’t bluff”—that are not believed because the actions of his Administration belie them. The way to regain credibility as a leader in world affairs is to credibly engage with the world. As the great Satchel Paige advised young pitchers, “Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.”