Analyzing President Obama’s foreign policy, or rather, analyzing the intellectual and positional evolution of his global positions is no easy task. It would not be hyperbole to say Obama came into office with the hopes and dreams of millions of Democrats and perhaps even the muted optimism of many moderate Republicans. In other words, hitting everything right on the mark was likely impossible. This only makes the present analysis more interesting, for the presidency of Obama has been marked by vicious attacks from the right, deep disappointment from the left and relative indifference from the international community. This negativity is more understandable when the main argument here is entertained: expectations have not been met in terms of foreign policy because Obama’s positions have more closely aligned with what some might call ‘true’ conservatism, something no side foresaw in 2008.
This apparent foreign policy surprise is partially the result of an interconnected process of push-and-pull: conservatives look to regain a dominant position for the future and democrats look to truly feel as if the President is one of them. This study is not so much how successfully he achieves peace between these two divergent camps, but rather how frustrating he seems to be to both for his failure to meet the stereotypical expectations of either side. One thing seems to be certain when looking at Obama foreign policy: external criticism of his positions seems to lead to a pragmatic overreaction that is more aligned with a moderate conservatism and makes him notoriously difficult to label with a broad left-leaning or right-leaning brush.
The event to highlight in an ever growing list of foreign policy positions that testify to an Obama true conservatism is perhaps the loudest achievement of all: the operation that successfully killed Osama bin Laden. The elimination of OBL has long been arguably the one foreign policy objective both Democrats and Republicans could agree upon. In the end, Obama accomplished the feat utilizing a Navy Seal team that violated the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan, performing an operation that purposefully left a supposed War on Terror ally completely in the dark. Every detail of this operation was in line with conservative foreign policy thinking. For those on the left who felt OBL was a ‘unique’ target that demanded ‘unique’ means this is simply not true: Obama has repeatedly said in the face of some international criticism about the manner in which OBL was eliminated that he would not hesitate to employ the same means for another high-value target. In other words, the sanctity of terms like multi-national cooperation and territorial sovereignty are relative. Ronald Reagan could not be prouder.
The issue has never been with whether Obama knows how to talk the Democratic talk. But does he actually walk the talk when the chips are truly on the global table? That is in serious question. Some have noticed the gap between his inspirational speeches and the actual policies he supports. Some have lamented what they see as bold promise in the potential to enact change only to ultimately be disappointed in specifics that are not nearly as transformational. Yet still others have talked of a shift not in substance but in tone, of foreign policy changes that are more cosmetic than real. These observations represent a small but important perception that questions how much of a departure there has been in foreign policy from the Bush-era. What many hoped would be a radical divergence something like foreign policy continuity has emerged instead.
Pragmatism is rarely a source for policy innovation. In crisis the instinctive reaction is to fall back to what is already learned. The safe method is the fallback. In foreign policy, whether Republican or Democrat, the fallback position for at least the last forty years has been realism, status quo, and national self-interest. Obama’s lofty rhetoric and grand speeches hide what is ultimately an inner realist masquerading as a pragmatist. It is not a failure to imagine or an unwillingness to accept bold challenges in the 21st century global arena. If Obama’s foreign policy positions to date have been uninspiring, it is because that is exactly who he is as an international statesman.
Why would one of the best political talkers in a generation be so bland when it comes to real decision-making on the global stage? Some of this is undoubtedly tied in with what President Obama is most personally comfortable with. Another explanatory variable has affected not just Obama the politician but Democrats as an entire party – defending against the accusation of being foreign policy weaklings. This was arguably the biggest lesson learned from the Democratic failure of 2004, when Vietnam war veteran, Purple Heart winner, and long-time Foreign Affairs Senate stalwart John Kerry lost to Bush. A Democrat could always criticize a Republican for being too quick and eager to go right to the stick before considering the carrot. What needed to be ensured was that Americans could see Democrats as being not too reliant on the carrots and, quite frankly, looking too goofy when trying to handle the stick (undoubtedly a legacy that was made eternal when Massachusetts Governor Dukakis stuck his head out of the tank in 1988). It seems clear that Democrats are always quick to overreact to such accusations and criticisms. They are even quicker to line up to show the chevrons symbolically tattooed on their arms, signifying their willingness and capability of defending America as stalwart and aggressively as any Republican. So there is a dual-track – one personal, one political – that basically guaranteed from the beginning a let-down for all those who wanted to see the lofty Obama rhetoric truly transform into real-time foreign policy change. To ask President Obama to go against his natural personal inclination is possible. To ask him to go against it while also having him fight off the structural constraints hindering his party in terms of foreign policy is unrealistic. The Obama record seems to indicate this.
Obama clearly values calculation. He is cautious and not overly prone to missteps and gaffes. More importantly, given the criticism and nature of the attacks he endures from opponents, that strategic calculus only becomes more careful. He also suffers from frustration, caused by his own party and those on the far left, which felt they were voting for some sort of presidential messiah. Most efforts to please this extreme part of his constituency is likely considered by the pragmatist Obama as offering little reward in terms of future elections. He is no doubt a bit disappointed by his own failure to make a transformative mark on the global stage and enact change through the sheer force of his will. The international community still likes President Obama. But no states, in terms of their substantive foreign policy/national security interests, have radically altered their positions just because Obama said so. How does this impact the foreign policy of Barack Obama? It has a centering effect that might even go beyond center and lean to the right. It is easy to forget that the George W. Bush era was not a tribute to classical conservative thought. On the contrary, the neoconservative ideology that underpinned many of his positions was decidedly aggressive in a wonderfully quixotic and somewhat liberal way. It was like taking Rousseau’s ‘forcing you to be free’ and applying it to the might and capabilities of the United States military. Obama is not a global messiah. In terms of foreign policy he is not even a great liberal. He is also not the object of a super-secret conspiracy brought to power by invisible America-haters bent on destroying the United States from within. Sometimes it seems Obama is more often criticized from both sides for not being the caricature partisans would most like him to be. But that ability to not cater to caricature is what will continue to make the distinction between policy rhetoric and policy reality a fascinating subject for Obama analysis.
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.