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Klein, Kristof and the Most Advanced Field in the Study of Politics

One of my lasting memories of graduate school is hearing Professor Mo Fiorina, tongue only partly in cheek, tell a gathering of first-year Government (political science to most of you) doctoral students that the study of American politics was the most scientifically advanced among the discipline’s four major subfields. At the time I thought Mo’s statement was absurd, mostly because as a former cub reporter covering local Massachusetts politics I was pretty sure there was nothing that could be scientific about studying American politics at any level. Politics was about people, in all their bewildering complexity, operating under contingent and unpredictable conditions. You might as well create a science to explain variation in cloud shapes.

As the years have passed since I first heard Fiorina’s declaration, I have been amazed by how much smarter he has become. In fact, as my Middlebury students can attest, I’m not ashamed to admit that I now repeat Fiorina’s assertion in orientation meetings with political science majors (not to mention in gatherings with my colleagues who study International Relations and Comparative politics, which pleases them no end. The theorists just seem bewildered that anyone would want to create a science of politics.)

I thought of Fiorina’s remark yesterday when I read this curious Ezra Klein column claiming that political science had, in effect, “conquered Washington.” Klein, the founder of the Vox website, observes that a decade ago, “knowing political science wasn’t a legitimate form of knowing about politics, or at least it wasn’t presented as one to young journalists like me.” Since then, however, “the single best thing that’s happened to political journalism … is the rise of political science”. This rise is exemplified in part by the increased visibility of blogs presenting political science research.

Somewhat dubiously, Klein suggests that one reason for the increased prominence of political science is that elected officials and other members of the political elite can no longer be trusted to explain what is happening in the political realm: “Washington is listening to political scientists, in large part because it’s stopped trusting itself.” This is in part, Klein argues, because “Politicians are losing power and political parties are gaining it”. Never mind that parties are led by politicians – Klein believes the flow of power from politicians to parties means that “these structural explanations for American politics have become more important.”

What is one to make of Klein’s assertion? I confess that, probably more than most of my political scientist colleagues, I’ve been more willing to take Klein to task for oversimplifying political science research in order to drive his preferred narrative, particularly when he flat out gets the research wrong.  Unfortunately, this column, beginning with the claim that structural explanations are becoming more important for understanding American politics, is ripe for the same type of critique.  However, lest I be accused of hating on Ezra once too often for his tendency to boil down complex subjects into two-minute declarative statements (after all, that is the explicit mission of his Vox website), let me instead this time praise him for his willingness to engage with political science research to a much greater degree than do many of his fellow journalists. True, the examples he cites in this article aren’t all equally effective at demonstrating what political scientists think they know. (For example, as Fiorina has shown, Klein’s assertion that political science has demonstrated that independents are closet partisans is far from settled – indeed, it is probably wrong.) Still, it would be curmudgeonly of me to criticize Klein for praising my field of study.

So I will let Klein’s fellow journalist Nick Kristof do it for me. Readers will remember that in this column Kristof lamented the unwillingness of political scientists to engage in debate about the most pressing political issues of the day. Rather than the increasingly important players Klein describes, Kristof sees political scientists as smart, but largely isolated from real world discussions: “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: ‘That’s academic.’ In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.” This is why, Kristof believes, “t]here are … fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.”

Significantly, Kristof puts the blame squarely on political scientists’ search for the “structural explanations” that Klein praises as helping scholars “conquer” Washington. Rather than advancing our understanding of politics, Kristof laments how “Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Instead of engaging in debate about topics of relevance in order to advance policy prescriptions, political scientists “seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.” The result of this pretense toward “science” is a decline in area studies and in real-world prescriptions.

How do we reconcile these contrasting views? At the risk of offending my peers in other subfields, I think in part it is a function of the difference in their respective topical focus. Klein is most familiar with research in American politics, while Kristof seems far more interested in studies in the fields of international relations and comparative politics. Here is where Fiorina’s partly tongue-in-cheek observation may in fact have some explanatory bite. No, I am not arguing that those who study American politics are smarter or better researchers. The explanation for Fiorina’s (undoubtedly deliberately provocative) observation – assuming it has any validity today – is far more complex than that (and I am certainly, through my own ignorance of other subfields, not doing full justice to the progress made outside the American politics realm). But one reason for Klein’s greater optimism, I think, is that as my colleague Professor Amy Yuen – an IR scholar whose research into third-party intervention into conflicts and on weapons of mass destruction is as topical, and as rigorous, as one can hope – suggests, students of American politics often have much greater access to relevant data than do their counterparts in other subfields. In this vein, it is not surprising that the research Klein cites as particularly noteworthy – such as the study of U.S. national elections or voting in Congress – is particularly data-rich topics. In these areas, a combination of accessible data and simple theory has produced at least a modicum of scientific progress, (although perhaps not as much as some of we Americanists like to think.)

Fiorina had it right, I think, all those years ago. The explanation for why Klein thinks political science has conquered Washington, while Kristof laments its irrelevance, is that Klein has trained his sights on the most scientifically advanced subfield within the discipline: the study of American politics. I think most Americanists secretly recognize the truth of that observation, even if they won’t publicly admit it. Most comparative and IR scholars, in contrast, likely think I’m full of sh*t. If so, I understand their sentiment. But they shouldn’t blame me. I’m just the messenger. Listen instead to Ezra, as he cites in particular the many election forecast models developed by Americanists: “Young political journalists I talk to know a lot more about political science and how to use it to inform their reporting than they did when I came to town. And readers are better for it.”

But it’s not just Klein’s readers who benefit from these advances. Next week we start classes here, just in time for me to pass on Fiorina’s message to a new generation of budding young scholars eager to delve into the brave new world of political science. To them I say, “Study American politics. It doesn’t get any better!”

Obama, FDR, and the Summer of Pundits’ Disconnect

I rarely focus an entire post on a single piece of punditry, but Ron Fournier’s National Journal article today, under the title “The Summer of Obama’s Disconnect” exemplifies so many of the misunderstandings regarding presidential power that I thought it deserved my (and your) undivided attention.

Fournier’s basic point – one that has become the conventional wisdom across a good portion of the punditocracy this summer – is that in this new age of terrorism, Obama is failing to lead. As Fournier writes, “What’s unique about our times is the nature of the threats—suicidal, homicidal, genocidal terrorists, well armed and organized, seeking the destruction of the United States. The other difference: the lack of Western leadership, starting with the president himself.”

Much of that recent dissatisfaction centers on Obama’s apparent lack of a strategy for dealing with IS (the Islamic State). For Fournier, recent statements by Obama’s chief cabinet advisers – Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel regarding the serious nature of the threat posed by IS to the United States belies Obama’s overly cautious military approach and his characterization of IS as, at best, a regional nuisance.  That disjunction in tone and in policy preferences, Fournier suggests, is evidence that Obama’s “team is divided, confused, perhaps broken.”

In interpreting the difference in rhetoric between Obama and his foreign policy advisers as a sign of internal dissension, Fournier repeats a mistake that media pundits often make. While pundits are continually interpreting differences in policy preferences as evidence of ineffective presidential leadership, the truth is that this disconnect is the logical outgrowth of advisers occupying different positions, with different responsibilities, from the President. In this respect, the Presidents’ advisers are always more rivals than team – it is the nature of a system of shared power that extends across the executive branch. But although advisers may engage in turf wars and policy disputes among themselves, they are unified in another important respect: none of them fully share the president’s vantage point. The reason is that they do not bear the consequences of presidential decisions to the same degree that the President does. This makes it far easier for advisers to advise than it is for Presidents to act on that advice.

There is nothing new about this disjunction in perspectives – it is as old as the Constitution. In listening to the pundits braying about Obama’s lethargy and lack of decisiveness, I was reminded of the similar criticism leveled against FDR in the summer of 1941, including from his own cabinet advisers. As Hitler gobbled up Europe and turned his eyes on the Soviet Union, with only Great Britain still holding out, and the Japanese ran wild in the Southeast Asia, Roosevelt, in his advisers’ eyes, dithered.  The late historian James MacGregor Burns, in his excellent study Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, recalls that by May, 1941 “a deepening crisis of confidence enveloped the [Roosevelt] administration”. Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes met secretly to discuss ways of pressuring FDR to act; “all agreed that Roosevelt was failing to lead, that the country wanted more action and less talk.”

Why was Roosevelt so passive in the face of the gathering storm? MacGregor Burns concludes that it was because the President – caught between a desire to act more aggressively on Great Britain’s behalf but facing strong resistance to military intervention within Congress and the public – did not see an optimal route to pursue. In short “the crisis of confidence was a crisis of strategy.” So he waited, and waited some more, essentially adopting “a strategy of no strategy” until the Japanese resolved the dilemma by attacking Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.

Despite the bloggers’ efforts to portray Obama’s golf outings as evidence of his Alfred E. Neuman – “what, me worry?” – approach to foreign policy, I have no doubt that Obama is engaged in a similar struggle to discern an optimal strategy when the reality is that there may not be one to choose. This is not to suggest he is totally blameless for his current predicament – he campaigned on a promise to extricate the U.S. from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without, I believe, fully anticipating what he would do if the U.S. withdrawal precipitated a widening of these regional conflicts and potentially elevated the risk to the United States. Now, he faces a Roosevelt-like dilemma: while polls indicate the public supports air strikes against IS, those same polls reveal continuing resistance to “boots on the ground”, at least in any significant fashion. And yet Obama’s military advisers warn that air strikes alone can’t defeat IS any more than FDR’s policy of all aid short of war, embodied in the Lend-Lease program, was likely to do much more than postpone Great Britain’s eventual defeat. It certainly was not going to do anything to loosen the Axis’ powers’ grip on their conquered territories,  much as air strikes are unlikely to loosen IS’ grip on portions of Syria and Iraq.

What is a President to do under these circumstances? To begin, it is probably useful not to confuse a lack of visible action with a lack of concern. Second, it is important to remember that it is easier for advisers to advise because they do not bear the consequences of action. In this regard, consider MacGregor Burns’ assessment of Roosevelt’s reaction, in the summer of his disconnect, “to these demands for leadership. Probably more than ever [FDR] felt that he understood pace and timing better than his critics did. They simply could not appreciate the web of restraints that surrounded him. It was not enough to cry out to high heaven for leadership and decisiveness. It was a matter of drawing millions of voters, thousands of opinion leaders, and hundreds of fellow politicians in Washington into a following that could be depended on both in the day-to-day exigencies of politics and at times of national crisis and decision making. The last group, the politicians, was the pivotal element.”

So it is, I would argue, with the task facing Obama. My guess is that he appreciates the repercussions of acting – and of not acting – more acutely than do his advisers, and hence is understandably a great deal more cautious than they are in deciding what to do, and when to do it. This may seem like an abrogation of leadership. But, as Roosevelt’s “policy” in the summer of 1941 reminds us, true leadership means calibrating action with what public opinion and political elites will support. It also means, however, working – behind the scenes if necessary – to see whether and to what degree elite and public opinion is malleable. Unfortunately for Obama’s leadership options, Roosevelt’s experience suggests that it often takes outside events of a dramatic nature to move both. In their absence, Obama’s policy toward IS will likely be viewed as excessively cautious by some, unduly aggressive by others – and ineffective by both.  And it will be further fodder for media analysts like Fournier to castigate the President for his failure to lead.

What?! No Strategy? The President Should Just Resign

Typically my Saturday post centers on a trip using the WayBack machine to revisit some presidential archive, but I confess I’m too distraught over the President’s monumental gaffe to even bother with my usual topic. You know the gaffe I mean – Obama admitted during his press confidence two days ago that he didn’t have a clue regarding how to defeat the Islamic State (IS) that is currently overrunning Iraq and Syria before coming to attack us here. It’s hard to exaggerate how big a gaffe it is. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Human Events John Hayward’s measured analysis: “You can save your breath, frantic Obama apologists. There is no way to spin the unmitigated disaster of this hapless President toddling to the podium yesterday and announcing to the world that he doesn’t have a strategy for defeating ISIS yet. The pants-wetting terror that immediately gripped everyone in the White House, and every dead-ender Obama-worshiping pundit, tells the true tale of how epic a blunder this was.”

Ok, John – who admittedly leans a bit conservative – might be slightly hyperbolic in his assessment but still, when he says this gaffe was “nothing less than Barack Obama conceding victory to ISIS in Round One of the new great war” I get concerned.  This is particularly the case when “non-partisan” media sources seem to concur.  For example, Time’s Zeke Miller, referencing the “no strategy” statement, wrote that, “President Barack Obama seemed to commit the worst of Washington gaffes Thursday when he updated the American people about the ongoing threat from Islamist militants wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria.” The New York Times agrees: “Lawmakers and television commentators expressed bewilderment and alarm that Mr. Obama had no plan for dealing with a militant group in a war-torn country where the death toll is nearing 200,000.” The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin was more concise: “Obama’s speech was a train wreck from start to finish.”

The twitterverse was no kinder to Obama. For example, CNN’s The Lead’s Jake Tapper, publicizing his upcoming program, tweeted: “Obama’s foreign policy criticized in wake of ‘no strategy’ gaffe http://cnn.it/VTFP90 – @jaketapper reports #TheLead”. Stephen Hayes tweeted “’We don’t have a strategy yet’ not only describes Obama admin & ISIL now but six years of Obama admin & Al quaeda/terrorism”. Even the BBC piled on in noting that the President had committed the very definition of a gaffe: “Mr Obama’s line is a textbook example of veteran journalist Michael Kinsley’s definition of a political gaffe, which occurs when a politician tells an “obvious truth that he isn’t supposed to say”.

Telling the truth?  No one will dispute that we are in deep trouble when the President begins doing that!

Note that the gaffe doesn’t just affect Obama’s political standing. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake suggests that Obama’s gaffe may cost the Democrats control of the Senate: “But it certainly helps the GOP make the case that Obama’s foreign policy continues to ‘lead from behind.’ And to the extent foreign policy matters in the coming election (which it’s starting to look like it could), that could put some red-state Democrats in tough positions.” This is because, as the Washington Examiner‘s Brian Hughes notes, the remark cements the prevailing view that when it comes to foreign policy, Obama is in over his head: “Rather than the average inartful comment that disappears after a few news cycles, the no-strategy line could help cement charges that Obama lacks the competency to handle multiple crises at once.” Politico’s Josh Gerstein concurs: “[H]is awkward choice of words to describe a policymaking process still in midstream seems likely to haunt him for some time.”

This is because the President’s remarks, as Gerstein reminds us, are part of a longer pattern in which the President consistently underestimates IS’s threat: “The impact and the danger of the no-strategy remark could be exacerbated by earlier Obama comments in which he seemed to dramatically underestimate the ISIL threat.” More importantly, Obama’s statement, as CNN’s Barbara Starr points out, could embolden IS: “But perhaps worth remembering that ISIS fighters, ISIS leadership will hear this statement that the U.S. right now has no strategy to deal with them. I don’t think anybody thought a military strategy was the whole answer, but no strategy?”

And what does this do to Obama’s historical legacy? Blake thinks the gaffe “strikes us as a legacy problem for Obama. For a president confronting a bunch of overseas crises in the final two-plus years of his presidency — including ones that involve or could involve U.S. force – ‘we don’t have a strategy yet’ could become pretty unhelpful shorthand for his foreign policy if things don’t go well.” The American Spectator’s Thomas Lifson, in an article titled “Obama’s no strategy gaffe may become the ‘read my lips’ signature of a failed presidency” is more candid: “President Obama has now placed himself in an extraordinarily vulnerable position should ISIS act against the American people with its customary savagery. His arrogant dismissal of it with a sports metaphor, his admission of no strategy, and his track record of dithering and unseriousness combine to make his gaffe into what could become his politcal epitaph.”

I could go on citing sources proving what an umitigated, crisis-inducing, presidency-ending Titanic-like foreign policy blunder this statement was, but fortunately IJS does it for me, linking to “17 Reactions to the ‘We Don’t Have a Strategy’ Gaffe That May Haunt the Rest of Obama’s Presidency”.  And, let’s be honest – it’s not like Obama didn’t realize his presidency had essentially ended when he made that remark; as the New York Daily News notes, Obama sent out his press secretary Josh Earnest to try “backtrack from his ‘no strategy’ gaffe”, but then the President realized the enormity of the gaffe and said essentially “The hell with it, I’ll go golf and raise some money.”

At this point the damage is already done. Frankly, it’s not clear to me why the President soldiers on in the face of this enormous mistake. As gaffes go, this is pretty devastating – worse even than “he didn’t build this”, or Obama’s reference to bitter, gun-toting bible-thumpers with no teeth.  I don’t need to state the obvious – journalists covering the presidency are not the types to exaggerate an incident for the sake of wooing viewers or increasing site visits.  No, this isn’t about hyping a story to generate ratings – it’s a sober, clear-headed analysis of a presidential statement that is likely to go down in history as perhaps the greatest presidential gaffe of all time.

Sigh. I’m going back to bed. Wake me when the President resigns.

Why “We Don’t Have A Strategy Yet” Is a Good Strategy For Now

In my years of punditry sophisticated application of political science to presidential politics, it has been rare for a president to both confirm my take on his previous actions and to follow my advice on what to do next within hours of my post on the topic. (Please, hold the hate mail – I’m not suggesting he actually read the post!) But we just saw both occur in the President’s recently completed press conference,  during which he acknowledged that, as yet, his administration has not settled on a policy for dealing with ISIS/ISIL, much as I suggested was the case in my earlier post.

Of course, the President’s candid confession set off the predictable barrage of criticism on the twitterverse with comments like this:

“What on earth are we waiting for?”

“Clint Eastwood’s empty chair would have a better strategy to deal with ISIS than Barack Obama.”

“If I have this right, we’ll be taking unspecified action following an unformulated strategy leading a nonexistent coalition.”

As I suggested in my post earlier today, however, it is no surprise that the Obama administration is struggling to formulate a response to ISIS – this is precisely the type of foreign policy problem that is most difficult to address because it is not immediately clear whether the nature of the ISIS threat affects U.S. national interests to the degree that warrants a more comprehensive military response, particularly one that may put us on the same side as a dictator we have been trying to remove for some time now. Once again, Obama’s initial response seems dictated by a desire “not to do stupid stuff” – at least not immediately, and not before he can get Congress involved in the formulation of a response. And while the twits in the twitterverse panned him for acknowledging that he has no “organizing principle” that would immediately dictate how to respond to ISIS, my point in my earlier post is that he needed to explain why this was the case, and why deciding what to do was so difficult. Today’s conference was evidently a first step in doing so.

Did he succeed? One of the difficulties any president faces in trying to explain his actions is that his is not the only voice that will be heard. Heading into a midterm election, Republicans are sure to pounce on Obama’s candid statement that his administration is still formulating a strategy as evidence that his foreign policy is reactive and lacks guiding principles. It will be interesting to see how the media reports on what are sure to be dueling narratives, and what the public reaction to these narratives is. This much is certain: almost every media report will lead with some version of the President’s statement that his administration does not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS.  Whether they will provide some context for this statement, however, remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE 5:50 p.m.: Since I know lots of you don’t follow Twitter, I thought I’d give you a representative sample of the reaction Obama’s admission is getting.  Needless to say, heads are exploding and, as far as I can tell, they are exploding on the Left as much as on the Right.

“I’m baffled. What possesses a president to acknowledge he doesn’t have a strategy against a threat he’s fighting?  Answer: Lameduck”

“Just to point out the obvious, ISIS in its various iterations is at least a decade old. But glad we are still working on the strategy thing.”

UPDATE 6:20:  Understandably, the White House Press Secretary is already trying to clarify the President’s remark: “WH scrambles to explain “we don’t have a strategy yet” remark. on CNN says there is ISIS strategy. Obama meant military in Syria.”

UPDATE 8:00:  And here is the predictable media headline (undoubtedly the first of many):  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/08/28/obama-on-increased-action-against-islamic-state-we-dont-have-a-strategy-yet/

Why “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” Becomes An Organizing Principle

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.