As a presidential candidate in 2007, Sen. Barack Obama relished the opportunity to rail against the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which he blamed for leading the country into a quagmire in Iraq. “The conventional thinking in Washington has a way of buying into stories that make political sense even if they don’t make practical sense,” he declared, adding: “I’m not running for president to conform to Washington’s conventional thinking – I’m running to challenge it.”
President Barack Obama has since learned how difficult it is to overcome the conventional thinking that has dominated our foreign policy for decades. Though clearly not a pacifist or non-interventionist, Obama has tried to advance a strain of realism that recognizes the limits of U.S. power and adheres to the organizing principle “Don’t do stupid stuff.” But his presidency has been marked by an uneasy tension between the philosophy he espoused on the campaign trail – one that has led to achievements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the reopening of relations with Cuba – and an establishment view that has contributed to mistakes, including the military intervention in Libya and increased hostilities with Russia. This is, in part, because early on Obama did not (with few exceptions) surround himself with advisers who were committed to a fundamental realignment of U.S. foreign policy. He opted instead to rely primarily on those tethered to the status quo.
With a year left in office, however, there are signs that the “real” Obama may be emerging as something truly unusual in American politics, something I wish we had seen more of during the past seven years: an anti-establishment president. The April issue of the Atlantic features a lengthy dissection of Obama’s foreign policy in which the president, in a series of interviews with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, echoes his criticisms of nearly a decade ago. “There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow,” Obama says. “It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”
Much of Goldberg’s article revolves around Obama’s decision not to attack Syria in 2013, in spite of evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its people, crossing the president’s previously stated “red line.” According to the establishment view, Obama’s failure to follow through on his threat signaled weakness and dealt a blow to U.S. credibility. Even though Syrian President Bashar Assad ultimately surrendered his stockpile of chemical weapons, in a deal brokered by Russia, many establishment figures still insist that Obama should have gone to war.
This “credibility addiction,” as Stephen Walt has called it, is so powerful that Obama’s critics on this front include former members of his own national security team, including his would-be successor, Hillary Clinton. “Once the commander in chief draws that red line,” argued former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta, “then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.” Goldberg reports that after Obama decided not to bomb Syria, Clinton said privately, “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.”
For Obama, however, averting military action in Syria is a point of pride, and the credibility argument is an object of derision. “Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of ‘credibility’ – particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force,” Goldberg writes. Indeed, as the president has reportedly told aides, “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
And while Obama hasn’t outright rejected the deeply entrenched establishment view that the United States is an “indispensable nation,” he has voiced frustration with “free riders” or countries that expect the United States to police the world without contributing their “fair share.” On this issue in particular, Obama may have an unexpected ally: Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
While Trump is odiously bellicose in many respects – demonizing Muslims and immigrants, advocating torture and promising to kill the families of terrorists (which is a war crime) – he has also broken with certain foreign policy orthodoxies that have not served the country well. In a recent sit-down with The Washington Post’s editorial board, Trump challenged the wisdom of nation-building and raised fundamental questions about why the United States should bear the cost of solving problems abroad. And in an interview with the New York Times on Friday, Trump reiterated his criticism, saying, “NATO is unfair, economically, to us, to the United States. Because it really helps them more so than the United States, and we pay a disproportionate share.”
One major theme of the presidential race has been anger with “the establishment,” which is usually taken to mean institutions such as Congress and Wall Street. Yet, while there has certainly been a backlash to the political and economic elite, the military-industrial complex and foreign policy establishment are equally in need of reform. To his credit, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has offered a realistic alternative to the conventional thinking, though economic issues are clearly his top priority. But what we really need today – and what Obama can provide in his final year in office – is a serious and sustained challenge to the foreign policy establishment that has failed our country for so long.
The Washington Post