As Barack Obama’s presidency counts down its last months, amid the raucous babble of the Republican presidential debate, people are beginning to realize how much we will miss Obama’s leadership. He has served with dignity and grace, increasingly rare attributes in American politics. His family has exhibited the values that Americans embrace. He has brought the economy back from the freefall he inherited.
Republicans, of course, scorn all things Obama, with particular emphasis on his foreign policy. They argue that he’s destroyed our nation’s credibility, gutted our military and fostered the spread of terror. The din covers the emptiness of the argument.
In reality, Obama’s foreign policy will be remembered as making a start toward reason. His record, of course, is complex. The president has enjoyed some remarkable successes — taking out Osama bin Laden, traducing al-Qaida, the nuclear deal with Iran, normalization of relations with Cuba (and thus with other neighbors across the hemisphere). He’s also met with frustrations as well. He was unable to extract us from Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria and Libya. He failed to close Guantanamo. He’s also asserted, dangerously, unprecedented executive prerogatives in the use of drones, assassination, the hunting of whistle-blowers, mass surveillance and more.
But Obama’s biggest legacy is his effort to turn America away from the interventionist appetites of both the neo-conservatives and the “indispensable nation” liberal activists. In a remarkable set of interviews with Jeffry Goldberg in the Atlantic, Obama argues that while the United States must lead, it cannot police the world. We must be both “hardheaded” and “big hearted.” We have to be clear about our real security concerns, learn to pick our spots, and not allow ourselves to be dragged into every civil war or humanitarian crisis.
The president is clear — and clearly right — on the priority of threats facing the U.S. Despite the popular terrors about terror, he understands that the Islamic State is not an existential threat to the U.S. In contrast, climate change potentially threatens the world if we don’t act to counter it.
Similarly, the president argues that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to U.S. interests, particularly with our increasing energy independence. The U.S.-China relationship, in contrast, is the “most critical.” Sustaining a peaceful rise of China that will make it a partner in securing international order is far more important to our security than all of the civil wars in the Middle East.
Obama believes, against the clamor of an interventionist foreign policy establishment, that overextension in the Middle East is far more destructive than restraint in the region. As his adviser Ben Rhodes summarizes, the president’s view is that “overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.”
According to Goldberg, Obama also has a common sense position about Putin. He sees Russia as weak, not strong, but understands that it has direct security concerns about Ukraine and Georgia on its border. That fact is, as Obama says, the U.S. is not going to war over Ukraine. Russia is prepared to do that. “People respond to what their imperatives are, and if it’s very important to somebody and it’s not that important to us, they know that and we know that.” Mexico has had to learn to live with the United States; Ukraine similarly has to learn to live with Russia.
This sounds like common sense, but it challenges the consensus of the foreign policy establishment that believes the U.S. is the only superpower and can “win,” as Donald Trump would say, simply by flexing its muscles. But of course they argue, we must be prepared to maintain credibility and strike if someone calls our bluff. Obama clearly understands the dangers of this posture.
Obama has made mistakes, as any president does. But he has come to understand the limits of U.S. power to direct global events, even as he realizes the importance of U.S. leadership to force global action. He calls on us to understand our limits and to set real priorities. He does this in the face of a national security state that is permanently engaged across the world, in the face of liberal and conservative interventionists who scorn common sense as weakness, and in the face of allies who are happy to have the U.S. carry the load.
Listen to the posturing and the bloviating of the Republican contenders for the presidency. Listen to the drone of the think tankers and academics calling for escalation without thinking of consequences. It doesn’t take long to realize that how much we should value the first steps that President Obama has taken toward reason.