Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy and the Washington Playbook

Jeffrey Goldberg has written an outstanding summary of President Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy. Goldberg deserves much credit for conveying ideas that he does not fully agree with. The picture agrees closely with the one I have been building in my mind from observing Obama’s actions and speeches. So much so that I withdrew an article I had written from consideration at another publication because what Goldberg wrote made my speculations obsolete. I agree with Paul Pillar’s summary of the article’s high points.

In Goldberg’s article, Obama disagrees with the conventional wisdom of many in Washington that privileges military action over diplomacy. Obama refers back to George H. W. Bush as one of his models. Before Bush became president, he had been a diplomat and Director of Central Intelligence. He came from a liberal Republican tradition of diplomacy. Bush was president during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, one of the most dangerous times in the late twentieth century. Although much of the credit for keeping the transition peaceful belongs to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, actions by the United States could have greatly exacerbated international tensions.

Bush and his administration navigated a rapidly changing situation, willing to change positions to meet the situation. He unilaterally reduced America’s nuclear weapons to reduce tensions and show good faith to the emerging Russian Federation. He avoided escalating Moscow’s use of force in the Baltic Soviet Republics with American force. His administration negotiated to remove nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine and include those new nations in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

It can be argued that the precedent for such an approach was laid by Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, in his negotiations with Gorbachev to reduce nuclear weapons.

Somehow, since then, the conventional wisdom in Washington – let’s call it the playbook, among both Democrats and Republicans, has come to favor military force to solve international problems. At the same time the Soviet Union was dissolving, Saddam Hussein was menacing Kuwait. Bush ordered military action in Iraq and succeeded in pushing Hussein out of Kuwait. The situation in Iraq remained unstable through the 1990s. The attack on the United States in September 2001 then helped crystallize frustration into revenge. This is part of the basis for the playbook’s emphasis on military force.

The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) also opened the way to broader use of military force. It dovetails with the moral feeling most people have that killing must be stopped. There also seems to be an upsurge in macho behavior in government. Putin rides horses bare-chested and threatens to off his enemies in the outhouse. The Republican Party, as a matter of policy, constantly bemoans how the United States military, which equals the total of the next eight or ten in size, is not enough. And, of course, male voices have long dominated the national security field.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, Stephen Sestanovich, and Frederic Hof have written criticisms of Obama’s policies as described by Goldberg.

If we look at what the playbook has brought us since 2001, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it’s hard to declare it an unconditional success. The arguments for invading those countries were similar to those for American military action in Syria. On the other hand, NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s may have kept those conflicts from being worse. All three of those articles advocate relatively unspecific measures and regard only the most favorable possible outcomes as being likely. Further, they argue that American display of force will intimidate Russia from its own military actions.

The lesson of the early use of military force in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya would seem to be that an early and strong blow to topple Bashar al-Assad would result in a broken country, continuing civil war, and increasing power to ISIS.

The “red line” reversal particularly goes against the playbook. So let’s look at that in more detail. One important fact is absent from these three analyses: the United States government considered Syria’s chemical weapons a major danger in the war and, from 2011, developed plans to remove them.

According to Sun Tzu, the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Bombing chemical weapons depots would have dispersed the agents, potentially causing enormous numbers of casualties. And bombing could be done only if the locations of all the depots were known, which they weren’t. A timeline helps clarify.

  • Fall 2011: US starts developing plans for removal of Syria’s chemical weapons
  • August 2012: Obama’s first mention of “red line”
  • Fall 2012: Discussion of plans begins with Russians
  • Early 2013: More Obama statements
  • August 2013: Sarin attack on Ghouta kills more than 1400 civilians
  • September 2013: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agree on a plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.

The sequence might be interpreted as a success for a US plan presented to the Russians and executed with their cooperation and the cooperation of their client, under pressure from Obama. Being willing to trade military action for diplomatic would seem to be a valuable exercise in flexibility.

No, say the critics. Backing down from the red-line threat signals weakness and led to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in spring 2014 and its recent intervention in Syria. That idea can be tested. Julia Ioffe interviewed several Russian officials on the subject. None of the critics address what she found. The interviewees felt that the two were unconnected. Some had a hard time understanding the question. This is consistent with political science research, which says that national interests are more important than perceptions of other leaders’ resolve. Putin saw Russian interests at stake in Ukraine.

Part of what seems to be going on here seems to be an assumption that Russia is always and ever the enemy of the United States, and the interests of the two can never converge. That is, of course, a leftover from the Cold War, twenty-five years after the Soviet Union dissolved. In fact, the two have a number of common interests. Most recently they worked to bring Iran into compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Russia and China have called on North Korea to return to talks on its nuclear program; they and the US have common interests in ending North Korea’s march toward nuclear-tipped missiles. A peaceful Middle East would be in both countries’ interests.

Finally, the nature of American democracy guarantees that a president will be unable to pursue a pure policy. Jeremy Shapiro discusses the currents that have buffeted Obama’s course in Syria. American foreign policy will always seem confused.

George H. W. Bush, who had been a naval aviator and World War II and the head of the CIA during the Cold War, could see that US interests lay in peaceful cooperation. That peaceful cooperation was part of the programs of most of the presidents, and even Congresses, since World War II. Why, then, has the Washington playbook turned to military force and the macho protection of red lines? More importantly, how do we change that?


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  1. Allen Hingston · March 18, 2016

    “Part of what seems to be going on here seems to be an assumption that Russia is always and ever the enemy of the United States, and the interests of the two can never converge.”
    Certainly, if America throws Eastern Europe and possibly all Europe under the Russian bus and concentrates solely on the Western Hemisphere, Russia is no longer the enemy of America, or of China for that matter.


    • Cheryl Rofer · March 18, 2016

      Even under present circumstances, some of the interests of Russia and the United States converge. They worked together to prevent Iran from going down the road toward a nuclear weapon. They continue to work together via the New START and Open Skies Treaties to limit their own nuclear weapons and to make what they are doing a little more transparent to each other.

      I doubt that America will be throwing any part of Europe under the Russian bus any time soon. I’m not even sure that Russia wants that.


  2. peteybee · March 18, 2016

    “George H. W. Bush, who had been a naval aviator and World War II and the head of the CIA during the Cold War, could see that US interests lay in peaceful cooperation.”

    Iran Contra, overt support for Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war (when Saddam got famous for his atrocities)… support for Afghanistan (which came back to haunt us as we now know). GHWB was no peacenik, and his “cold blooded realist” vision was a disaster in the long run.


  3. Cheryl Rofer · March 18, 2016

    GHWB called Mikhail Gorbachev on September 27, 1991, to say that he was standing down and removing many of the US nuclear weapons that were on alert at the time. Gorbachev reciprocated a week or so later. This showed Gorbachev and the Soviet government that the United States did not intend to take nuclear advantage of the Soviet Union in its weakness. It helped to make the crisis a little less world-threatening. Later, he allowed US nuclear scientists to work with the Russians to secure their nuclear arsenal and materials.

    Bush did the things you list. But his handling of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was superb, and quite unlike the calls for military action we hear from too many quarters today.


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