Barack Obama is a thoughtful man. His interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, however, shows that even the most cerebral of Presidents cannot escape the deeper patterns of American history. Throughout much of its history the United States, as Louis Hartz pointed out sixty years ago in the Liberal Tradition in America, has vacillated between trying to remake the world in its own image and a crude, undifferentiated isolationism. The contrast between George W. Bush and Barack Obama is but the most recent manifestation of this point/counterpoint. President Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy presented a coherent grand strategy. Transnational terrorism posed an existential security threat to the United States. Addressing this threat required understanding its root causes. The root causes were repressive regimes in parts of the Islamic world. The elimination of this threat would require replacing autocratic regimes with democratic ones. A successful grand strategy must, however, have not only intellectual coherence but also empirical validity. On the latter, President Bush’s policy manifestly failed.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy and candid story shows that Barack Obama is trying to come to terms with Bush’s legacy as well as some of the policies advocated by those in his own party, especially with regard to Libya. And what the President has concluded is that American engagement in the most troubled parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East, is futile. The American commitment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya has only brought more blood. Both President Bush and those advocates of a more active foreign policy in his own Administration—perhaps Hillary Clinton and certainly Samantha Powers—are wrong. The Washington foreign policy establishment, with its fetishistic focus on credibility, is deeply mistaken. The failure to enforce the redline in Syria was not a mistake. Without the support of the American public, the Congress, major allies, and the United Nations, it would have been a mistake for the United States to act, and perhaps a mistake to act even if all of these other pieces had fallen into place.
It is not, however, obvious that the United States can ignore domestic developments in countries that might harbor actors that could threaten the national security of the United States. In the past such threats could only be posed by major states. In the 1930s the retreat of the United States from Wilson’s expansive vision and the failure to actively check the rise of Germany and Japan contributed to the carnage of World War II. In the present the connection between underlying material capabilities and the ability to kill thousands or tens of thousands of individuals in much more powerful countries has been severed. North Korea and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and elements in the former might be attracted to selling such capabilities to transnational terrorist groups, while Islamic jihadists in the government of the latter might find it attractive to use them on their own. The knowledge and resources needed to manipulate biologic agents to produce lethal pathogens is becoming more widely available. Individuals or groups, even some without the support of a state, could launch cyber attacks that could disrupt basic services in advanced industrialized democracies.
It is illusory to suppose that there is a set of policies that could securely eliminate such black swan attacks, whose underlying probability distribution cannot be known even if we do know that such attacks are unlikely but would be highly consequential. With regard to domestic policy the United States and other advanced industrialized countries need to strengthen their intelligence and security capabilities; security must be privileged over privacy. In the face of renewed large scale terrorist attacks the position of Apple and other internet companies would be completely untenable.
Internationally, the United States should focus on good-enough governance, not on putting countries on the path to Denmark or withdrawal. The first objective of good-enough governance would be to enhance security in poorly governed states. All good things do not go together; enhanced security might mean less observance of human rights and less rule of law. It might mean accepting figures like Muammar Qaddafi. The Saudi royal family is preferable to the Iranian mullahs, although both are profoundly inconsistent with American values. The United States should focus on tolerance or perhaps good-enough inclusion rather than full inclusion. In some circumstances some services might be improved, especially health, and better job prospects and some economic growth might be achieved. Free and fair elections, however, and the elimination of corruption are unattainable. Unlike enhanced security, tolerance, better health services, and more jobs, free and fair elections and Weberian rational-legal bureaucracies are inconsistent with the interests of local elites in poorly governed states.
George W. Bush tried to do too much. Barack Obama has advocated doing too little. The United States must be engaged, but it should not, in John Quincy Adams’s words go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”