Obama as Hardheaded Liberal

August 26, 2011

Critics of President Obama are always banging on about his commitment to America’s alliance system. Yet the success of the NATO operation in Libya is the latest evidence of the effectiveness of his alliance approach.

It is true that during his campaign for president, Obama de-emphasized the role of alliances. He did not always draw bright lines between allies and other states. Instead he bracketed alliances with other, less intimate relationships, writing of his intention to rebuild “alliances, partnerships and institutions.” As the first president to come of age politically after the end of the Cold War, Obama did not seem to view alliances as special.

Republican provocateur John Bolton even claimed that Obama had “a post-alliance policy.”

However, President Obama has turned out to be much more alliance-friendly than candidate Obama. The “special relationship” with Britain has cooled somewhat, and he has reached out to new powers such as Indonesia. Yet despite the attacks of his critics, Obama’s approach to alliances sits squarely in the tradition established by his predecessors Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Conservative commentators have mocked Obama’s belief in the efficacy of international rules. Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope that “nobody benefits more than we do from the observance of the international ‘rules of the road.’” Many of these rules were established by Roosevelt and Truman, who believed that a rule-based system amplified U.S. power rather than constraining it. And it was the propensity of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to break international rules and agreements that hardened those two presidents’ determination to contain and defeat them.

In the Middle East, Obama has been criticized for walking away from America’s long-term friend President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a step that worried officials in countries from Saudi Arabia to Israel. In fact, Obama’s response to the Arab Spring, though initially uncertain and clumsy, came to be characterized by a blend of caution and hardheaded liberalism. He now places a lesser premium than most of his recent predecessors did on the stability provided by Middle East allies, and a greater premium on their people’s right to democracy. But some of those allies can no longer provide stability anyway.

In the Egypt case, Obama is said to be insufficiently committed to allies. In the Libyan case, the opposite charge is leveled: that he ceded too much ground to allies, by allowing Britain, France, and other NATO allies to take the lead. Yet it would have been risky for the United States to lead another major military operation in the Middle East when it is already fighting two bloody wars nearby. It is especially galling when former officials of the Bush administration, which mismanaged the Afghanistan War, initiated the wrong-headed Iraq War, and blew out the Federal budget, refuse to acknowledge their own responsibility for the constraints that have limited America’s role in the Libya operation.

Viewing Libya another way, Obama has revived an old American tradition—exemplified by FDR’s foreign policy in the early stages of World War II—of using European allies as proxies to wage war when the United States is unable to take the leading position.

Events this week indicate that Obama’s approach in Libya has managed to cripple the Gaddafi regime in a way that maximizes the Libyan people’s ownership of the victory and minimizes the risks and costs to the United States. The contrast with George W. Bush’s approach in Iraq is stunning.

Obama’s Libya approach has managed to cripple the regime in a way that maximizes Libyan ownership of the victory and minimizes risks and costs to the United States. The contrast with Bush’s Iraq approach is stunning.

Obama’s critics also fail to acknowledge that he is much more popular with allied publics than was his predecessor. This has not translated into greater assistance for the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it has restored drooping public support in allied countries for the idea of allying with Washington. For example, the number of Australians who believe the U.S. alliance is very important to their country’s security has shot up by 23 percent since the nadir of the Bush administration.

Of course, the biggest challenge to America’s position in the world comes not from the Middle East but from East Asia. And there, the president’s approach to China, and his commitment to America’s Asian allies, has strengthened significantly over his first term.

Initially Obama set out to accommodate Beijing’s interests and its claims. Yet the Chinese leadership failed to clasp his outstretched hand, disappointing the world at Copenhagen, failing to rein in its North Korean ally, and throwing its weight around in the region. Obama responded in kind, pushing back against the Chinese, taking two major trips to Asia, with significant stopovers in Tokyo and Seoul, and moving to deepen further America’s defense ties with Australia.

Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the founders of America’s alliance system, were hardheaded liberals. They would certainly recognize Barack Obama as their heir.