By Sean Kay
Best Defense guest
Donnelly's recent guest piece on
Best Defense is an important contribution to thinking about America's search
for security and the ideas that drive it.
he ultimately misdiagnoses the problem. To be sure, the nation is witnessing
serious failures of the Obama administration's ability to articulate a sense of
purpose and vision for America's foreign policy. Consequently, it is signaling
confusion at a time when clarity is needed. In particular, President Obama
seems to want to be both a liberal interventionist and a realist at the same
time -- which fosters uncertainty in advancing the national interest.
the most important points that candidate Obama articulated in the 2008 election
was a desire not only to end the war in Iraq, but to also change the mindset
that got us into the war in the first place. Yet there was an inherent
contradiction: His first administration was populated primarily with senior
appointments, particularly Hillary Clinton, who had supported invading Iraq. America
found itself soon transplanting a surge theory in Iraq -- which has now been
shown to have been a tactical success but a strategic failure -- into
Afghanistan. Then we found ourselves in an interventionist war of choice in
Libya -- yet how does that look now? The liberal and neoconservative pressure
for another war in Syria was stymied by a realist-driven American public. The
purpose of that war was to punish Syria for using chemical weapons -- yet
without war, a more successful outcome was attained regarding these weapons via
diplomatic engagement and inspections. In Ukraine, the Obama administration has
acted by advancing important principles, but also recognizing the limits of
what America can achieve in a conflict backed up against a nuclear-armed
argues that this all reflects some growing angst of American self-doubt. Perhaps
if we had maintained the loose liberal and neoconservative triumphalist
consensus of "leadership" that drove American foreign and defense
policy for the last 20 years, all would be fine. But it was this 20-year period
that led to dramatic overstretch abroad, and underinvestment in the domestic
foundations of American power at home. On the critical issues America now is
grappling with -- from the aftermath of invading Iraq, to the surge in
Afghanistan, to overpromising eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia
in 2008 -- realists have been right. However, to acknowledge that is to
acknowledge the failure of an elite worldview that has done grave damage to the
very idealistic principles that many of its liberal and neoconservative
advocates sought to advance.
American public, polling tells us, is in its most isolationist mood since World
War II -- and that is a direct consequence of the last 20 years of over-reach. Any
president would thus need to look at this situation and see the world as it is,
not as we wish it could be. Limiting America's being pulled into peripheral
wars, getting allies to assume more responsibility for their own security,
diplomatic engagement with adversaries, re-thinking the advantages of
containment versus regime change, focusing on areas of common interests with
other great powers, and investing in the domestic foundations of American power
-- these are realist approaches, but are driven by a mainly liberal
interventionist foreign policy team and therein lies the dilemma.
failure of the Obama administration has not been its lack of embrace of the
prior elite vision that drove American global leadership into the ditch. Rather,
it has been a failure to articulate a clear sense of purpose and priorities to
the American public and work daily to build a new consensus in Congress while
transforming bureaucracies, budgets, and communications to clarify new
priorities. Case in point is the very necessary pivot to Asia. Even the most
rudimentary of analyses shows that the structure of global power is in Asia. The
Obama administration was right in setting Asia as a top priority among other
important regions -- with the Persian Gulf and Europe being second and third. However,
the Asia pivot has been allowed to drift absent sustained senior level presence
in the region, while conflicts in Ukraine and the broader Middle East
understandably continue to hold attention, though these are conflicts that call
out for regional allies to be in the lead. The administration has allowed its
critics to define its approach as "weakness" and "retreat".
If a foreign policy team will not stand up and fight politically for its
principles and priorities abroad, that is indeed signaling weakness.
is signaling confusion precisely because the Obama administration has failed to
escape the grip of 20 years of liberal and neoconservative thinking that has
come to dominate Washington, D.C. Congress too has responsibility for that: Congress
wants to get tough on Russia -- yet where is the money that Ukraine needs? We
want "action and leadership" but we also want burdensharing, and thus
criticize the poorly articulated "lead from behind model" while
advocating for status quo incentives that allow allies to free-ride on American
power. We want to grow our economy, but where is the investment in the future
of American power and competitiveness -- for example, in education and trade?
Donnelly argues that the Obama administration is making the "meritocratic
elite" nervous. This might well be true, especially as the Clinton "team"
tries to distance themselves from their own record as part of the last 20 years
of foreign-policy thinking while at the same time apparently doubling down on
the ideology that drove us into interventionist fiascos.
a long line of realists who first rallied around Obama's opposition to the
invasion of Iraq have had good cause to be disillusioned, dating back at least
to the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the various interventionist
impulses that followed it. But it is the very elites that Mr. Donnelly points
to as fretting about America who are so disconnected from the American people,
who instead wisely stood up and put the brakes on yet another war in Syria a
year ago, who have steadily supported restraint in dealing with Russia, and who
have reasonable concern about mission creep and a new conflict in Iraq today.
we would be wise to worry less about the shattered self-confidence of American
elites, who time and time again get major issues wrong. Instead we might focus
on what Dwight Eisenhower once said: "Whatever America hopes to bring to
pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America."
Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan
University and Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International
Security Studies at the Ohio State University. His new book is America's
Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism.
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