Washington Post columnist Charles Lane has just done an excellent job of demonstrating how powerfully universalist America’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment remains – even as powerful reasons keep multiplying for climbing down from this wildly ambitious approach.
According to Lane, a new book by former American diplomat and Columbia University political scientist Stephen Sestanovich bears out President Obama’s claim to be a kindred spirit with Richard M. Nixon as a “retrenchment” president – one of the chief executives who has sought to “correct the perceived overreaching of their predecessors and free up U.S. resources for domestic concerns.” In fact, says Lane, Sestanovich has written that post-World War II U.S. foreign policy has been marked by a “constant pendulum-swing between administrations that aggressively pursued U.S. goals abroad” (who the author calls “maximalists”) and those Nixon- and Obama-style retrenchers.
I hate to comment on books I haven’t yet read. But Lane’s description of Mr. Nixon and Mr. Obama both qualify as retrenchers reveals a mindset so enthusiastic about massive and potentially open-ended U.S. involvement in literally every corner of the world if necessary that it sees even talk about a more discriminating approach as a major departure.
Judging by the record, it hasn’t been. In fact, both the Nixon talk and the Obama talk about retrenchment have been overwhelmingly that – talk. Just as important, and closely related, what have arguably looked at least superficially like exercises in retrenchment have in fact been exercises in wishful thinking. Both presidents have actually agreed that the security, stability, and even prosperity of the entire world are U.S. vital interests. They’ve simply differed with the maximalists in insisting that these interests can be defended through means that are less dangerous and violent, and more globally popular, than the unilateral U.S. use of military force.
To cite the leading historical example, the ballyhooed Nixon Doctrine of 1970 was never a decision to cross Vietnam or any part of Asia off the list of vital U.S. interests – those whose defense was thought essential for maintaining America’s own security and prosperity. As explained initially by Earl C. Ravenal shortly after the Doctrine’s declaration, Mr. Nixon had decided, in the absence of any evidence, that this vital set of objectives could be defended without an early resort to U.S. military involvement – chiefly, by the militaries of America’s regional allies.
Therefore, Ravenal wrote:
“the Administration’s new policies and decision processes do not bring about the proposed balance [between the country’s foreign policy ends and the means to be used to attain them]; in fact, they create a more serious imbalance. Essentially we are to support the same level of potential involvement with smaller conventional forces. The specter of intervention will remain, but the risk of defeat or stalemate will be greater; or the nuclear threshold will be lower.”
President Obama has given us a different version of such dangerous wishful thinking. More accurately, he’s given us several different versions. His original 2008 candidacy for the White House was largely motivated by a conviction that the overly unilateralist and militaristic tendencies of George W. Bush had produced disaster in Iraq, and were actually undermining U.S. security by damaging America’s international image.
That’s why Mr. Obama focused so much attention on repairing that image. He never indicated that he would scale back that list of U.S. vital interests. He simply suggested that they could be better defended if need be by acting multilaterally, with international approval, rather than by going it alone. And he conveyed the clear impression that challenges could be prevented in the first place if only America became more popular in regions like the Middle East.
Once in office, Mr. Obama did try to establish a hierarchy of U.S. worldwide interests that would have operational impact. He decided that the nation had been so preoccupied with Middle East wars that it had been neglected the Asia-Pacific region, which he considered at least as important. So he launched a “pivot” that would transfer some American forces from the former to the latter.
But the president never apparently judged the Middle East to be less important to America’s fate. He simply concluded that, with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars supposedly winding down, it had become less dangerous. Having been proven wrong by the rise of ISIS. in Afghanistan, he’s (gradually) boosting the American military presence in region again. The president is claiming, moreover – based on as little evidence as Mr. Nixon required – that any remaining capabilities gap can be filled by the armed forces of regional countries. Worse, many of his Republican critics, who are just as reluctant to deploy many more U.S. “boots on the ground,” agree with Mr. Obama’s fundamental assessment.
Further, the president has actually expanded the list of circumstances in the Middle East (and presumably elsewhere) that should justify American military responses – the kinds of chemical weapons attacks launched by Bashir Al-Assad against Syrians revolting against his dictatorship, along with similar major violations of international law. (This effort, so far, has not yet won over the public.)
Nor does that exhaust Mr. Obama’s efforts to lengthen the list of U.S. vital interests. He has understandably responded to Russia’s recent provocations against allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by strengthening U.S. forces and deploying them more conspicuously in new NATO members like Poland and the Baltic states, former Soviet satellites clearly in Moscow’s line of fire. Less understandable have been the Obama administration’s numerous suggestions that the security of Ukraine, too, is a matter of urgent American concern – even though this country was actually part of the old Soviet Union for decades with no apparent effects on U.S. safety or well-being.
Yet like the debate over countering ISIS, that over dealing with Vladimir Putin spotlights one major difference between President Obama and his (mainly) Republican foreign policy critics: Many of them have strongly backed big boosts in the U.S. military budget (if not always using these forces), including aggressive moves to circumvent spending caps established by the sequestration process. Mr. Obama has not sought comparable increases.
The president unquestionably has often spoken in terms that seem to support a smaller U.S. role in the world – e.g., his remarks suggesting that America’s exceptionalism isn’t all that exceptional, and reminding that much of the world has legitimate historical grievances against the West, and in some cases against the United States specifically. But his strategic walk has never matched this talk, and the continuing flood of contentions to the contrary in the punditocracy and even academe (if Lane’s Post column is accurate) plainly are serving their (partly) intended purpose of preventing searching debate on foreign policy fundamentals.
Given the nation’s resulting over-extension militarily, therefore, when the chattering class powers-that-be start labeling presidents or most other politicians as retrenchers or minimalists (an improvement to be sure over the hackneyed charge of “isolatonism”), the only legitimate reaction is a thoroughly exasperated, “If only.”