THE BLOG
11/03/2014 11:36 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

A "Laid Back" American Foreign Policy?

There is an undercurrent of thinking in foreign policy circles that a restrained, less actively engaged approach to the country's external relations may best conform to American national interests and capabilities. It has emerged as counterpoint to the hyper activism that has characterized the United States' dealings in the world during the post-9/11 era. Its key postulates are the following:

• There exists no direct threat to our vital interests of a magnitude &/or immediacy; we are more secure than at any time since the 1920s.

• This relatively benign environment permits us to be selective in deciding where we might assert American powers -- the use of military force in particular.

• Our current over extension as driven by the pursuit of global dominance is draining national resources for at best marginal increments in influence and at times are counter productive

• We can and should rely more on others to address the problems created by those who are hostile to us and who may destabilize regions where we have significant concerns.

• Such a strategic perspective entails a more discriminating attitude toward the promotion of democratic forces in places where autocratic regimes do not follow policies that endanger our interests or friends.

• Specific terrorist threats should be treated primarily as an intelligence/police problem; we should refrain from trying to arrange the affairs of other societies to prevent the deterioration of conditions conducive to terrorist recruitment and organization

There are those who claim that these signposts mark out the strategic map that Barack Obama has implicitly been following for the past six years. That is an intriguing question; it is addressed below. Before turning to it, though, it is essential to delineate the implications of the "restraint" foreign policy in terms of specific spheres of the country's foreign relations and the mechanisms for its elaboration and execution. Most important, this is not the easy option -- in any sense. Indeed, it is more demanding than the course we have been on. Across the board assertiveness and power projection is pretty straightforward. An approach that is discriminatory and selective involves a larger portion of ambiguity. That challenges judgment and diplomatic skill. The challenge is exacerbated insofar as the United States would find itself in a transitional state for years. Its current far reaching commitments and deployments mean that a subtle recessional would have to be conducted. This is the diplomatic equivalent of a fighting retreat, the most daunting of military maneuvers -- more complex than offense or defense (or outright retreat). Its diplomatic equivalent depends on a political skill level well above what has been on display in recent years.

Quite frankly, the caliber of high and mid-level personnel would have to be upgraded. Less amateurism and careerism, more experience and sophisticated knowledge. Equally, a President would have to seek out people with a different mindset. That is to say, a more nuanced view of the world, more acute awareness of other countries' political culture and leadership, and a talent for dealing with other states on a basis other than the assumption of American superiority and exceptionalism. Attempts to dictate the internal affairs of foreign countries would become the rare exception rather than the norm. All of this is a tall order.

In truth, conduct of the Global War On Terror that has enveloped American foreign policy for more than a decade has not required much deep thinking or deft diplomacy. Rampaging around the Muslim world whacking radical Islamists (and other hostile people like Saddam) is fairly uncomplicated -- especially when measures of success are so elastic. Achieving more refined ends by less costly means is far more demanding -- intellectually and in terms of policy execution. Similarly, it doesn't take much wit to spend a trillion dollars on a vast intelligence apparatus when you don't bother to apply a rigorous standard to appraise the product's utility and timeliness.

What are the practical consequences for specific policy areas? One, the stress would be placed on American security and critical economic interests. Democracy promotion, the role of universal human rights defender, and peacemaker in local disputes would be downplayed -- if not abandoned entirely. That affects dealings with Russia, China and most certainly the Middle East. In addition, the United States at the same time would end its systematic efforts to oppose leftish regimes throughout Latin America as we presently are doing in favor of business friendly leaders beholden to oligarchic elites and American multinationals.

Two, this approach permits greater consistently at the philosophical level since it involves letting go of the national mission to lead the world on the road to democracy and righteousness even while Washington plays the rough game of power politics where and when security concerns dictate doing so. During the Arab Spring, for example, the United States lost a tremendous amount of credibility by its silence on suppression in its ally Bahrain, on Saudi Arabia's primaeval practices, and Israel's abusive treatment of Palestinians.

Three, the principle of differentiation means that Washington can be more honest in admitting that some places are more important to it than others. From this strategic perspective, there is little happening in sub-Saharan Africa that is of major importance for American security. That includes the Sahel where local jihadist groups may be troublesome but not of an order calling for the engagement of American resources beyond intelligence activity and technical back up for the French who can handle the situation better than we could.

The Middle East would remain high on the agenda -- not simply out of inertia but because of energy, the density and potential scope of the perceived terrorist danger, and Israel. The last obviously is tricky for domestic political reasons. At the end of the day, however, one cannot reconcile the current open-ended commitment to back to the hilt everything that a government in Jerusalem chooses to do with a subtle strategy designed to weight carefully the cost/benefits/effectiveness of each American relationship in the region.

Four, a President who sees the virtue and/or necessity of this kind of strategic adjustment would face a formidable task of raising awareness among the American public as to why it is in the national interest. Doing so on specific aspects of the novel approach, e.g. a much higher bar on military interventions, will prove easier than reconciling the country with a conception of the American Pageant of Progress that downplays the missionary element, that tones down the "City On A Hill" oratory, that entails keeping one's distance from some very unpleasant things going on in the world, and that foregoes the illusion that the United States must continue to police large swaths of the globe in the quixotic hope of achieving absolute security for all time. Most daunting is avoiding the emotional trap of seeing in every killing of an American an omen of another 9/11 on the near horizon -- as is occurring now in regard to the beheadings by IS. There always will be an American vulnerable to such acts of violence somewhere out there. We cannot afford to react in the manner of imperial Britain in the 19th century if we are seriously about pursuing the option of a restrained foreign policy.

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Now to the question of whether this represents the true belief and conviction of Barack Obama in his innermost being.

The first place to look is his rhetoric about the United States' place in the world. For that is where the absolutely critical work of adjusting American worldviews and self-images must begin if a foundation is to be laid for this kind of fundamental reorientation. A scrutiny of the President's speeches reveals no evidence of such an awareness and initiative. As recently as this spring's much publicized address at West Point, he drew upon all the stock phrases of American exceptionalism, indispensability, unique responsibilities that have been the studded gemstones of every president's rhetoric since WW II. He reiterated his dedication of prosecuting the GWOT relentlessly, committing Americans to seeking out and destroying those who would harm the United States wherever they might be found: the Taliban in Afghanistan, the al-Qaeda subsidiaries in Arabia, the Horn of Africa, North Africa or Mesopotamia. Moreover, a ritual bow to friends and allies notwithstanding, he made it clear that this was a job for America. The last point was the leitmotif of his speech to the UN General Assembly this week.

It is true that Obama also told an interviewer that all terrorist groups are not the same in the likelihood and magnitude of the threat they pose to the United States. The message got lost, though, thanks to his stilted language, poorly chosen metaphor and characteristic failure to follow up. You cannot shift a generation of national momentum with a few obscure remarks on one television show seen by a tiny fraction of the citizenry. That may serve the purpose of authenticating a point in his memoirs but is of no value in policy terms -- as witness the irresistible passions pushing the President to "destroy...crush" IS within three years (glory to Hillary). Moreover, he currently is engaging in an all-out campaign to inflate the threat represented by ISIL and the previously anonymous group, Khorasan, which, out of the blue, has been rated the number one contender for the title of "most imminent threat." On September 18, when the outfit's name first was mentioned, it was referred to as just another minor al-Qaeda franchise. By September 24, it had morphed into a mortal threat plotting to place bombs on American subways. Predictably, all and sundry were jumping on the band wagon -- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo photographed on the 42nd St platform vowing that none of the millions who use the system daily would be allowed through the turnstiles with non-flammable underwear or any other explosive device.

It is true, too, that in March 2013, Obama held out the hope that will pass through the present time of troubles associated with the GWOT to a more settled, less obsessed future. But he has done nothing to accelerate progress toward that goal. The words seem more a wistful expression of what he would like to happen than a springboard toward making it happen. This is a classic Obama rubato moment intended to demonstrate his singularity while not deviating from the score.

Nor did Mr. Obama have qualms about painting Putin's Russia in the most dire colors as a manifest threat to the European order, itself a central concern of the United States. He restated the idea that autocracy and aggression were twinned, as are democracy and peaceful cooperation among nations. Ukraine's future lies in the West and we continue to welcome it with open arms. If this means antagonizing Russia, so be it. If these means that Russia now is unlikely to figure as a tacit ally in containing the spread of China's influence, so be it. Although, admittedly, the administration has said nothing about this last implication, it is an inescapable consequence. This is exactly the type of undifferentiated approach to identifying enemies, of confusing time frames, that the alleged new "restrained" strategy would assiduously avoid. In that strategic framework premiums would be placed on sparing oneself direct confrontations by relying on others' self-interested action; that includes setting one rival power against another -- certainty not encouraging their embrace.

That strategy demands as well great discipline in defining opponents, in the undertaking of commitments, in avoiding situations where the scale and priority of American interests are not clearly worked out. In short, the antithesis of what we have done in the Syria/Iraq/Iran triangle. There, Obama's policies have created a situation where we have many enemies and no friends; where we are pursuing several goals simultaneously -some mutually contradictory, and reacting to unforeseen events with no strategic compass whatsoever. The long enemies list includes: the Assad regime, the radical Islamist opposition to Assad -- of which IS is only one organization, IS, the Islamic Republic of Iran whom we persist in declaring a hostile rival and we whom we refuse to talk of anything other than the nuclear issue, the radical Shi'ites in Iraq as embodied by al-Maliki and the Iranian backed militias, and even the Saudis. Kuwait and Qatar who nurtured Islamist elements in Syria before repenting (sort of). The result is to be caught in a web of impossible dilemmas. The vexing decision whether to bomb Assad or his main opposition is only the most embarrassing of them.

Meanwhile, Obama insists on acting as Bibi Netanyahu's protector and public relations agent even though Israel actions in Gaza aggravate every other relationship in the region while adding fuel to the burning rage of IS's recruits.

It is hard to see how the Obama policies that led us into this trap can coexist, much less be reconciled, with the postulated Obama whose supposed private agenda is a quite radical remake of the country's outlook and actions on the world scene. We also should note that the goal ascribed to him of retrenchment -- in the definition of what constitutes a significant national interest, in the criteria for activating military force, in the lowering of expectations of what we can achieve -- is at odds with many other concrete actions that the White House has taken. Consider these. He approved the December 2009 surge in Afghanistan that merely extended the protracted conflict. He has maintained the strict criteria that have made serious negotiations with the Taliban a near impossibility. He fought hard and long to keep American bases there, in Iraq, and in Central Asia even though their utility is anything but obvious. He has expanded the size and role Special Operations Command to the point where it operates in over 100 countries -- from the Congo jungles where it is hunting a criminal to Honduras where it is helping the junta (whose illegal coup we backed) try to tamp down the various violent insurrections to which its rule has given rise.

Admiral William H. McRaven, the commander of SOCOM until a few weeks ago, has often given voice to its open ended and audacious missions:

"SOC will be mandated to do active intelligence gathering, to engage if political penetration of other countries and governments, to undertake training and liaison with foreign militaries, and address underlying conditions that spark insurgencies."

Not once has Obama signaled any disagreement with this formulation. On the contrary, it conforms to his infatuation with the wide deployment of Special Forces and drones to fight the perpetual "War on Terror' and to deal with other security problems.

Some might argue that this is preferable to sending conventional armies to occupy foreign countries a la Afghanistan or Iraq. But that is a difference of tactics, not strategy. Moreover, it is circumstances more than principle that will determine the mode of American engagement so long as there is no basic change in the definition of American security interests and the level of tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

Furthermore, aggressive prosecution of the GWOT is folded into the military doctrine of "full spectrum dominance." As spelled out in a number of official Pentagon documents that have received the presidential imprimatur, that doctrine sets as the goal of the country's security strategy to establish and maintain a dominant force capability at all levels of conflict in every region of the globe. That is the antithesis of restraint and discrimination and selectivity. The Obama administration even has gone so far as to commit itself to the trillion dollar project of modernizing our entire nuclear arsenal (over 30 years) -- a massive program without apparent rhyme or reason.

Let us also bear in mind Obama's unprecedented assault on civil liberties justified by the vain ambition of achieving absolute security for Americans in keeping with the national myth of invincibility and privileged protection even as the United States inserts itself into the domestic affairs of others.

These contradictions find their ultimate rationalization in the assertion that Obama was severely constrained by political realities which included the need to appoint persons who did not share his vision. This argument is unpersuasive -- on two grounds. First, no serious strategic reorientation can be accomplished by stealth. Whatever Obama may feel in some part of his heart is meaningless in policy terms if the actions and rhetoric of his administration are at variance with them.

Second, it is by no means clear that Barack Obama in 2009, in the very depth of public disgust with our catastrophic intervention in Iraq, was obliged to appoint ardent neo-liberal interventionists, unreconstructed Cold Warriors like Victoria Nuland and conventional supporters of an American imperium strategy. The arch hawk and Bush holdover Robert Gates, the I must prove myself more macho than any man Hillary Clinton, General Jones, the iron fisted and ham-handed Leon Panetta, the Jack Ryan of counter-insurgency General David Petraeus, the hyper-ventilating and chronically mendacious John Brennan -- they were all cut from the old mold. Not one shared an ounce of the new paradigm that Obama supposedly held dear to his heart. None was bolted to the floor of the Oval Office when Obama walked in. He picked them because they were pillars of the security establishment who could confirm his commitment to the tenets of American policy which he had no inclination to challenge. This is the same mindset that led this deeply conventional thinker to appoint members of the Wall Street establishment to address the very collapse that they had caused.

The life blood is bleeding out of the Obama presidency -- prematurely. With more than two years left in office, he is just going through the motions -- running out the string as they say in baseball parlance. Has he sketched a new vision or provided a different lens for Americans to view the country's place in the world? Neither is visible to the naked eye. Yet, the great international challenge ahead is pretty obvious. Put simply, it is two-fold: to establish between the two dominant powers -- the United States and China -- agreed rules of the road to govern their own relationship and to guide world affairs generally; to cultivate a set of multilateral mechanisms and arrangements suited to a world of dispersed power and economic interdependence. What balance of American assertion and restraint might best serve these ends is uncertain. What is clear that it hasn't been struck by the Obama presidency and that progress in that direction has been scant- if at all existent.