With news reports suggesting the Obama administration is contemplating extending air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Syria, it is worth revisiting Hillary Clinton’s implicit criticism that Obama’s foreign policy lacks any underlying guiding principles. You will recall that in her interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton opined that “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Clinton’s words, which many pundits took as a shot at her former boss’ conduct of foreign policy, prompted Obama’s former White House aide David Axelrod to tweet back, “Just to clarify: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.” If Obama does authorize air strikes in Syria, it will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire ignited by Clinton’s remarks, particularly since air strikes in Syria against ISIS would appear to implicitly place Obama on the same side as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad*, only a year after Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons against his own people.
However, as political scientist Bear Braumoeller wrote in this excellent piece at the Monkey Cage two days ago, Obama’s seemingly rudderless foreign policy is in fact partly a function of the nature of the foreign policy crises he faces. In the case of ISIS, there is a clear lack of agreement regarding the severity of its threat to U.S. national interests. In the aftermath of reporter James Foley’s killing, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned ISIS in the strongest terms, saying “ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.” Similarly, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described ISIS as “an imminent threat to every interest we have.” It is not clear, however, whether these remarks from Obama’s chief foreign policy aides reflect Obama’s views – or are designed to persuade him to adopt them. And, while opinion polls indicate public support for air strikes against ISIS, they also show extreme reluctance to engage in another war in Iraq.
Lacking a consensus regarding the severity of the threat ISIS poses makes it difficult to fashion a coherent foreign policy response. More generally, this has been the problem that has plagued Obama throughout his presidency as he has confronted a series of regional hotspots. As Braumoeller writes, “Sometimes the main actors agree on fundamental values and policies—as the Great Powers did, for a time, during the Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. More often, though, no foreign policy is completely successful. What that means is that, while everyone ends up at least a little bit frustrated, no one is so dissatisfied with the status quo that they are willing to exert the effort that would be needed to change it.” As Braumoeller’s argument implicitly suggests, Obama’s foreign policy appears to lack an underlying principle in large part because the President does not appear convinced that the issues he confronts – the Ukraine separatist movement, the fight in Gaza, and now ISIS’ effort to establish a caliphate – clearly affect U.S. national interests. As Braumoeller puts it, “Simply put, the challenges that remain are not sufficiently compelling to prompt us to attempt them in the face of determined opposition.” The result is a foreign policy that appears reactive because although Obama appears unpersuaded that a stronger foreign policy response is warranted, neither does he feel free to completely disengage from each of these hotspots, particularly when the status quo is in danger of unraveling.
For Braumoeller, this is the crux of the dilemma Obama faces: “The paradox of living in a world in which we have achieved most of our big foreign policy goals is that the lesser ones that remain seem more difficult to obtain. But that is exactly what we should expect, precisely because these are lesser goals — and because we have reached the point at which frustrating them matters more to someone else than achieving them means to us.” It is here, in the failure to articulate a policy for addressing these lesser crises, that I think Clinton’s criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy may have some merit. It is one thing to promise to withdraw militarily from regional hotspots that do not immediately affect U.S. national interests. It is quite another to do so if the consequences are greater regional destabilization and a potential increase in the likelihood that warring groups will become a threat to U.S. national interests. My sense is that the Obama administration, understandably, is recalibrating its response to these regional threats on an ongoing basis, as the context changes and as it learns more about the nature of the forces it is facing. But that recalibration creates the perception that Obama’s foreign policy is reactive, and guided by no clear principle. Yes, that may be an inevitable consequence of the nature of the security dilemmas with which Obama struggles to cope, but it may also reflect his own uncertainty of his foreign policy goals – and how best to obtain them.
If so, he wouldn’t be the first president to struggle with these issues. It is common for pundits to argue that the presidency has become more difficult in large part because of the nature of the foreign policy problems recent presidents face. However, as I have argued previously, and as Braumoeller’s post suggests, these problems appear more intractable in part because their severity, at least as they affect U.S. national interests, has lessened compared to what presidents confronted when we lived in a nuclear weapons-dominated, bipolar world. Yes, Obama faces difficult foreign policy challenges – ones that defy easy solutions, and hence make it difficult to articulate the modern-day equivalent of “containment“. However, as this audio recording of Lyndon Johnson voicing his struggle with foreign policy choices in a 1964 conversation with Senate Majority Leader Richard Russell reminds us, adhering to abstract foreign policy principles doesn’t always lead to optimal outcomes. In this regard, while “don’t do stupid stuff” may not rise to critics’ idea of an organizing principle, under some circumstances it may be the best default option, at least in the short run.
Now all Obama needs to do is to make the public understand this – and that may be his most difficult foreign policy challenge.
*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed the Syrian dictator as Hafez al-Assad rather than his son Bashar.