Obama's foreign policy is a little meh. Photo: (Getty/Spencer Platt)
Either Barack Obama gave a revolutionary anti-war speech that is — in Ezra Klein's rare use of the adjective to describe his reporter Max Fisher's take on it — "big."
Or it was same old, same old.
It was an answer to a question posed by those who think that Obama is aimless and that his foreign policy is formless. Even though there haven't been any huge disasters on his watch and he can claim credit for ending America's part in two wars, the tone of it has just been, kinda, off. Kinda, just everywhere. Not really inspirational. Not really anything more profound than...meh.
And why the Meh. And how dangerous is the Meh?
Jeffrey Goldberg, who has spent quite a lot of time with Obama and with world leaders to whom Obama talks, calls Obama's steely-eyed approach to the world "a management challenge: containing threats, quieting allies, liming damage."
Writes Goldberg: "He recently described his policy this way: 'You hit singles; you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.'"
And that may work, in so far as one needs foreign policy to work. But they're not at all what we're used to. The domestic politics of foreign policy constrain this president, as they've constrained presidents since the beginning of the Republic. Even Ronald Reagan was sensitive to how the public understood his approach to arms control, and around 1983, changed his tune.
But Obama — held back by a thoroughly dyspeptic political class and by Americans who don't want to use force to solve problems for a while — hasn't figured out what types of policies might replace the constant threat of force in the American nationalistic lexicon.
Goldberg gets one thing wrong. He writes that Obama does not promise the impossible, something that Americans want their president to do, particularly if it advances the cause of freedom around the world. But Obama, in his first term, promised to set the world on a course to a "global zero" for nuclear weapons. He arrogated to himself the power to negotiate a treaty with Russia that would move the issue forward even though he knew Russia was going to cheat the system.
And in the early days of his presidency, the promise that Obama would roll back the national security state was not unimaginable. He wanted to, yes, manage the problems of Guantanamo Bay and secret law, but he also wanted to reform them for the next 20 years. He promised this, and yet, in term two, he labors much more slowly and incrementally. Remember how many times, during his first term, Obama used gestures and rhetorical flights to try to signal, aggressively, to the world of young Muslim and Arab men that America was on their side?
Where this analysis gets on track is that Obama never uses crises in the way that others have. The Arab Spring was a managerial problem from day one. Critics still bash him for failing to side with the true democrats, but really, even today, who the heck are the true democrats? Who stands for American values? Whose version of freedom is closer to ours? What Obama understands, and perhaps understands to a degree that limits his willingness to say otherwise, is that the American version of freedom cannot be exported under current conditions. Maybe in the future, things will change. But now, they cannot.
So where does this leave us?
Well, Hillary Clinton believes that America remains indispensable, and will begin to make the case for why, very soon. Rand Paul has a very different vision.
And eventually, when the American public is tired of being tired, they will be ready to embrace a president who articulates a difference course. For now, they're getting, as several smart people have noticed, exactly what they want. Writes Goldberg:
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- How Israel's hawks intimidated and silenced the last remnants of the anti-war left
- Welcome to the age of ambivalent feminism
- Why China thinks it could defeat the U.S. in battle
- 10 things you need to know today: August 20, 2014
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- Why your employer should clean your house and do your laundry
- What the 'death of the library' means for the future of books
- The real lesson of Rick Perry's mug shot
- What you need to know before you support the police in Ferguson
Subscribe to the Week