Wednesday, August 28, 2013

President Obama's pragmatic foreign policy

As I read various people discuss what they think the U.S. is preparing to do in Syria, I think Jonathan Chait has an excellent point. His title gets the ball rolling: Syria Isn't Iraq. Everything Isn't Iraq.
The generation that came of age during World War II famously — and, in time, tragically — came to apply the formative lessons to every foreign-policy event that followed it. The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War, and then, more recently, the Iraq War, was imprinted with the opposite lessons.
Basically what he's saying is that its important to see what is being considered in Syria on its own merits (or demerits) and not project one's feelings about America's past onto this situation.

I see evidence of this in commentators who can't quite wrap their minds around the idea that the United States would take military action in a country minus a goal for regime change. Its understandable that this would be difficult given our country's past. Whether via overt invasions or covert means, we have a long history of assuming the exceptionalist position that we have the right to determine another country's leadership and fate.

President Obama has demonstrated that he does not simply shy away from the use of military force - much to the chagrin of many people on the left. What he has also demonstrated is that when he makes that call, it is often in support of giving the people of a country the opportunity to decide their own fate...and live with the consequences. We saw that in Libya where the goal of intervention was to stop a massacre of the Libyan people, not regime change. As Chait points out:
The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.
Julia Ioffe sees the same thing happening in discussions at the White House about Syria.
As always, the administration is split on action in Syria, and on what, if anything, should be done...Looking at the roster of the fifteen people at the President's meeting to discuss the Syria crisis, they split roughly in two: the do more camp, and the do less camp. "People have been pretty stable in their positions," said a source familiar with the situation. "I don’t think anyone has changed their position."...

By Monday evening, the policy was still very much up in the air, but the "do less" camp seemed to be winning, probably because of Obama's notorious reluctance on such things. The outlines of what the Obama administration is likely to do was starting to take shape: the U.S. would likely act, but it would act mostly to impose a sense of consequence, stopping short of doing something obviously designed to shift the balance inside Syria between Assad and the motley rebel crew...That is, it would do enough damage to show the world that Obama's word is bond, that a red a red line, but would stop short of weakening Assad enough to let some increasingly shady people topple him. Retaliating for chemical weapons use, says one administration official, "would not be because of a desire to intervene in Syria, but to prevent future chemical weapons use."
(Emphasis mine)

Whether or not you agree with whatever action the President decides to take in Syria, it is important to note the significant change this represents in U.S. foreign policy.  I suspect that the reason so many people are struggling with understanding it is that they have a hard time envisioning an American foreign policy that recognizes our moral obligation to our principles - including both standing up for human rights abuses and ceding control of a country's fate to their own people.

Most often arguments about foreign policy have been limited to a binary choice between interventionists and isolationists. As his domestic policy has shown over and over again, the pragmatist in President Obama has refused those ideological positions and looked for "what works" from either one. That, as VP Biden said, is a BFD when it comes to a change in our foreign policy.


  1. Valid point. Obama's pragmatism also seems to guide his policy on drones, which horrifies many people I respect. (I take that to be based on the idea that fewer collateral casualties is better than more.) In both cases, however, I am concerned about the long-term ripple effects of the actions, and I end up opposing Obama's policy, assuming that current reports are accurate, while also acknowledging his seriousness. I hope he pulls back.

    1. I'm not sure its wise to assume anything in regards to particular actions in Syria right now.

  2. To regard Syria in full context would me to get away from binary thinking and may require our nation to actual sit down and consider all options in front us and what our role is in the world.

    We can be superman flying around the world to save everyone, but we can sit on our asses either. That's been the whole point in the Obama administration's foreign policy view.

    1. For "can" read "can't" twice, right?

      The Obama administration has an approach to foreign policy that does invite discussion, not just rote opposition/cheerleading, and that is a very good thing. I would note, however, that we do in fact choose to "sit on our asses" in many circumstances; often in such cases, most of us are not even aware that such a choice exists. A publicity push for military intervention such as seems to be happening now definitely demands skeptical scrutiny. I am glad the White House is thinking, and I hope I can agree with their final decision.

  3. Whether or not you agree with whatever action the President decides to take in Syria, it is important to note the significant change this represents in U.S. foreign policy.

    No, it isn't. You obots crack me right up. It's like you've completely forgotten the entire 1990s. Which were quite frankly not that long ago.

    For almost ten years the US practiced containment of Iraq through sanctions and occasionally limited military action like what will occur in Syria. Ten years. And that's not even getting into the Balkans (which was far more complicated in terms of international personnel on the ground).

    I've got mad respect for Israel, which skips all this public psychodrama. They've quietly been pecking away at Syrian capacity for a solid year plus. They have their objective, they have their timetable, they launch their attack(s) and then they move on.

    1. You have a point. Some of this kind of foreign policy took shape under Clinton too. I suppose we forget that after Bush came along and made such a mess of everything.

      We can see now in retrospect that the intervention in the Balkans was pretty well thought-out and effective. You can't say the same thing about those 10 years in Iraq - not much pragmatism went into thinking that one through.

    2. It's actually the opposite. The various Balkans operations were total calvinball clusterfucks that happened to work out because of unique circumstances on the ground. It was really the first time anybody tried to fight a war that way and early implementation was a mess. The Iraq containment worked exceedingly well at depriving Iraq of WMD capacity and any further regional aggression, as was proven in 2003. The containment didn't do a lick of good at promoting humanitarian outcomes in Iraq, but neither has the containment of the Syrian civil war. Nor, I should think, will the impending missile strikes.

  4. All of the above is why I trust President Obama to make the right decision -- but then, I am a pragmatist. These are not simple black/white issues -- in fact, very few decisions that get to the President's desk are simple ones or someone else would make them.

  5. Retaliating for chemical weapons use, says one administration official, "would not be because of a desire to intervene in Syria, but to prevent future chemical weapons use."
    This seems to be missing from most public discussions about Syria. Can we allow chemical attacks to become the new normal? I thought this was settled after WWI.