Saturday, August 9, 2014

an alternative assessment of Obama's foreign policy

The conventional wisdom -- a J.K. Galbraith term that suggests unthinking consensus rather than an agreed understanding -- is that President Obama's foreign policy is confused, unpredictable, weak, inconsistent, and ultimately a failure. If the administration has a vision, much less a strategy, it hasn't been communicated to the journalists and pundits.

In my studies of American foreign policy, I have rarely found an administration or a particular policy that didn't deserve one or more of those criticisms. Policymakers more often than not muddle through, with a short term focus and tunnel vision, trying to deal with the most urgent problems with mitigation rather than solutions.

I do think the Obama administration has been overly and inconsistently criticized on many aspects of its foreign policy. I'm also glad that the president has strategic patience in dealing with big problems and is a reluctant warrior, unlike his 2008 Republican opponent.

Last year, when "everybody" was criticizing his Syria policy, professor Dan Drezner argued that it was sensible and effective -- doing just enough to put pressure on Assad and tie down Iran without committing U.S. military power to a chaotic situation.

This week, Matt Yglesias, who normally writes on economic issues for Vox, has a similarly favorable evaluation of Obama as a foreign policy realist.
To its detractors, realism is a policy of cynicism — one that, in the name a cold-hearted national interest, leaves on the table a bounty of humanitarian gains ripe for the plucking.
The more generous view is that realism is a policy of limits. A recognition that for a moral foreign policy to do any good in the world it must be feasible, and that even the mightiest empire the world has ever known faces daunting challenges when it attempts to remake the domestic politics of foreign countries. A recognition that the long-term ability of the United States to do any good for anyone hinges on maintaining domestic strength and advancing foreign goals in cost-effective ways.

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