Three large realities dominate President Obama’s foreign policy. The first is political: The American people are weary of war and want their government to turn its attention to problems on the home front. The second is fiscal: The vector-sum of Democrats’ unwillingness to reform entitlements and Republicans’ unwillingness to raise taxes is a relentless squeeze on discretionary spending—including defense—as far as the eye can see. And the third is policy: The Obama Administration views the Middle East as a problem, not an opportunity, and desperately wants to focus its attention elsewhere.
Last December, the Pew Research Center released a comprehensive survey on Americans’ attitudes toward global engagement. The results were stark. Fifty-three percent of Americans—the highest in four decades—believe that the United States plays a less important and powerful role in the world than it did a decade ago. Seventy percent say that the United States is less respected abroad than in the past. At the same time, 51 percent say that the United States does too much in helping solve world problems, and 52 percent—the most since survey research began—agree with the proposition that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Fully 80 percent say that we should concentrate more on our own national problems and on building up our strength here at home. The only kind of international engagement Americans still support is robust engagement in the global economy.
This is not to say that the American people no longer perceive threats from abroad. They identify five “major threats”—Islamic groups like al-Qaeda (75 percent), cyber attacks from abroad (70 percent), Iran’s nuclear program (68 percent), North Korea’s nuclear program (67 percent), and China’s emergence as a great power (54 percent). Although public opinion remains in flux in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea, there is little doubt that perceptions of Russia as a threat and potential adversary have become more pervasive. But their view is that we are well positioned to meet these threats. While 56 percent want the United States to remain the world’s sole military superpower, 68 percent think that we are. By contrast, 48 percent of Americans consider China to be the world’s leading economic power, versus only 31 percent for the United States. The global competition we are losing, say most Americans, is not military but economic.
The foreign policy goals the American people regard as top priorities are without exception defensive. The top five are protecting the mainland from terrorist attacks, protecting American jobs, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, reducing our dependence on imported energy, and combating international drug trafficking. By contrast, internationalist goals such as addressing global climate change, defending human rights in other countries, and promoting democracy abroad rank very low. When asked which is more important for the Middle East—democratic government, even if there is less stability in the region, or stable governments, even if there is less democracy—23 percent choose the former while three times as many (69 percent) opt for the latter. The people’s desire for a world that neither invites nor requires American military intervention is palpable.
In sum: After more than twelve years of conflict in the Middle East, we have entered a period that resembles the immediate post-Vietnam era. Now as then, the American people do not believe that the benefits of overseas military engagement equal the costs in blood and treasure. Nor do they believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made us safer. Now as then, more leaders in both political parties are advocating a foreign policy that emphasizes restraint. And the public response to the Ukrainian crisis—act strongly but don’t get too involved—has underscored the people’s desire to steer clear of foreign entanglements that could embroil the United States in military conflicts. In this context, administrations of both parties will have a hard time making a winning case for more assertive foreign policies or for the investments in national defense needed to back them up. And this environment is likely to persist until the people come to see accumulating threats from abroad as requiring a more forceful response. It took the better part of a decade after our withdrawal from Vietnam for this change in sentiment to occur, and there is no reason to believe that it will happen more quickly this time around.
Another war is coming to an end, this one in Washington, DC. The Red and Blue combatants have fought each other to an exhausted draw. Republicans have abandoned hope that they can use the debt ceiling to force structural changes in entitlements; Democrats understand that large revenue increases are not in the cards anytime soon. The two-year spending agreement between Paul Ryan and Patty Murray sealed this truce, which seems likely to persist until fiscal issues are reargued in the 2016 presidential contest.
This is not to say that nothing has changed. During the past three years, deficits that many regarded as out of control have been reined in. Spending has been cut, mostly in domestic programs. Taxes have been raised, mostly on the wealthy. Budget deficits will fall to below 3 percent of GDP—low enough to stabilize the debt/GDP ratio—before resuming their rise, which demographic realities make inexorable.
The big loser in all of this has been spending for things other than retirement and health care, and this trend will intensify over the next decade. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent projections, discretionary spending will fall from 7.3 percent of GDP in 2013 to only 5.3 percent in 2023, the lowest share in more than fifty years. Non-defense discretionary spending will fall from 3.5 to 2.6 percent. Defense will fall even more, from 3.8 to 2.6 percent. Not since the period before World War II have we tried to defend our country and meet our international obligations with so small a portion of our national product.
I have yet to meet an analyst who believes that cuts of this magnitude are compatible with essential investments in basic research, education, and infrastructure, or with maintaining our defense establishment at anything like its current size and shape. Recent events have demonstrated the deep unpopularity of even modest cuts in benefits for military veterans and retirees, the most rapidly growing portion of the defense budget. Unless this changes (and there is no sign that it will), the next decade will witness significant cuts in both procurement and troop levels. My best guess is that the Army will fare even worse than the Air Force or the Navy, largely because the public and the officials it elects regard boots on the ground as the worst-case outcome for our foreign policy.
It will be a very long time, I believe, before the United States enters another large war. And even if it does, I suspect it will be fought from the air and the sea rather than land, and with the maximum feasible substitution of technology for human beings. I do not expect the Obama Administration to halt the momentum toward this outcome, and it is not clear that it could, even if it wanted to. Every time the American people are asked about possible budget cuts, they name defense first. In the wake of large defense expenditures since 2001, the people are in no mood to do what it takes to maintain our defense at current levels, and it will take reverses of the kind that occurred in 1979 and 1980 to change their minds.
Everyone knows about the “pivot to Asia.” What that really means, I believe, is a pivot away from the Middle East. President Obama evidently believes that the region offers danger without opportunity; more bluntly, it means nothing but trouble. His policy in Syria dramatizes his determination to avoid entanglement in another Middle Eastern conflict, even if staying out means complicity in a humanitarian disaster much worse than the one that drew Bill Clinton into the Balkans. Although the failure of the Geneva peace talks is prompting a policy review, I would be amazed if it led to anything approaching robust engagement on the side of the ragtag forces opposing Bashar al-Assad. Only the impending collapse of a key American ally such as Jordan—and maybe not even that—would prompt a change of course entailing significant military or political risks.
To be sure, the President has given his Secretary of State considerable diplomatic running-room over the past year, and John Kerry has used it to the hilt, especially in his efforts to mediate final-status peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. If those efforts fail, the United States will almost certainly retreat to the sidelines of this unending conflict for the remainder of the Obama Administration.
The weightiest and most imponderable issue is, of course, Iran. We should know by the end of 2014 whether a final agreement with Ayatollah Khomeini is possible. If not, President Obama would face the most fateful choice of his presidency. Senior Administration officials continue to insist that “all options” are on the table. Even before the Syria fiasco, it was hard to find many leaders in the region who believed it. Now it’s nearly impossible.
It is no secret that the Saudi leadership and other Persian Gulf allies deeply disagree with President Obama’s decision to enter into an interim nuclear deal with the Iranians, and they view his policy in Syria as the leading indicator of his willingness to accept a final deal that would leave them dangerously exposed. Although President Obama’s recent trip to Riyadh may have cleared the air, it does not appear to have healed the breach between U.S. and Saudi objectives. For the first time ever, Israel and Saudi Arabia, our two staunchest allies in the Middle East, find themselves more closely aligned with each other than either is with the United States. Evidence that the United States is moving toward an arrangement that would leave key Iranian nuclear capabilities intact could lead to outright cooperation between the Wahhabi kingdom and the Jewish state on a military strike, the consequences of which would be incalculable.
From time to time, American Presidents encounter a stark choice between public opinion and the national interest. George W. Bush faced just such a choice late in 2006, and he defied popular sentiments to launch the surge in Iraq. By the end of this year, Barack Obama could face a choice between a deal with the Iranians that our allies would reject and a military option that the American people would oppose. Then we will find out what the real Obama doctrine for the Middle East amounts to. If it is “Do nothing in the region that a majority of the American people would reject”, diplomatic and military strategies that have guided American governments since the 1940s would be defunct, and our longtime allies almost certainly would look elsewhere for their security. But if he decides he has no choice but to draw the line against a nuclear program that the Iranian regime refuses to abandon, he would end up with the very policy he has struggled throughout his presidency to escape.
Ido not mean to be cynical or reductionist. I have no doubt that Mr. Obama wants to focus on Asia and that he seeks to do so without downplaying our relationship with Europe. Indeed, his Administration is pursuing two major regional trade pacts that would do just that. And, as we’ve seen, the American people remain far more open to economic engagement with the world than to military entanglements. One might infer that the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would be slam dunks. But here’s the rub: Important elements of the President’s own party oppose them. No sooner did President Obama call for trade promotion authority in his State of the Union Address than the Senate Majority Leader told him to forget about it. And without TPA, his chances of getting the TPP and TTIP across the finish line anytime soon shrink dramatically.
Here, as in the Middle East, there is little doubt about what the President wants. In both cases, the question is whether he is willing to pay a significant political price to get it. If the bottom-line Obama doctrine turns out to be “Do nothing that reduces the President’s approval rating”, his foreign policy will go down in history as somewhere between inconsequential and failed. If he has the courage of his stated convictions, the outcome will be far better, even if the road is thereby made much bumpier.