Obama’s Foreign Policy Options

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 15, 2008

Presidential elections provide useful opportunities to reassess the health of the nation and—provided a majority of citizens agree—to change America’s leadership if the balance sheet does not look good. This was essentially Ronald Reagan’s point in 1980 when he posed the simple, elegant question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” When Americans answered “no”, they chose him to take over for Jimmy Carter and to initiate a different approach. As President Bush winds up his second term, a similar exercise seems appropriate, certainly so when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Eight years after Bush was elected—and seven years after he launched what both supporters and critics agree to have been a “revolution” in foreign policy—is America better off? Is the United States safer, stronger and more self-confident?

I believe it is impossible to answer that question in the affirmative, an assessment I think most Americans, and certainly most Democrats, share. As the Bush presidency comes to an end, the world is more dangerous, America’s enemies are stronger and more numerous, and our international standing is vastly diminished. In Iraq, despite significant recent improvements in security, 150,000 U.S. soldiers continue to fight and die in a war already in its fifth year, at the cost of $300 million per day. Iran is far stronger today than it was eight years ago; it funds and arms terrorist groups throughout the Middle East and is moving rapidly toward a nuclear weapons capability. Democracy, the promotion of which has been a centerpiece of the Administration’s foreign policy, has stalled or been reversed in the Middle East, Russia and Latin America.

Meanwhile, the popularity and credibility of the United States have plummeted to all-time lows. Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah are far more popular among Sunni Muslims, if the polls can be believed, than the President of the United States. Most Muslims now even say they would prefer to see China or France replace America as the dominant power in the region. Finally, while the United States homeland has not been attacked since 9/11—a surprising and welcome development for which the Bush Administration deserves some credit—Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders remain at large, and major terrorist attacks around the world have proliferated. This is not a balance sheet any president would wish for.

Not all of these unwelcome developments are entirely President Bush’s fault, of course, and his various defenders make a range of arguments to try to mitigate the widespread impression that the Administration has failed. Some, for example, insist that the President’s foreign policies have been fundamentally sound but that more time is needed before they will pay off. This seems to be Bush’s own explanation, for example, when he compares himself to Harry Truman, who seemed unsuccessful (and was certainly unpopular) when he left office, but decades later has been proven right about most things. Other of the President’s defenders argue that the problem with the Bush approach is that he was not sufficiently vigorous in implementing it. Two years ago, Newt Gingrich had already started arguing that Bush’s “strategies are not wrong, but they are failing” and calling for the mobilization of more “energy, resources and intensity.”1

This is also apparently the logic of those currently supporting John McCain, who is offering a more vigorous and competent version of the Bush approach. As columnist (and McCain foreign policy adviser) Max Boot has put it,

the leading candidate to scare the snot out of our enemies is a certain former aviator who has been noted for his pugnacity and his unwavering support of the American war effort in Iraq. Ironically, John McCain’s bellicose aura could allow us to achieve more of our objectives peacefully because other countries would be more afraid to mess with him than with most other potential occupants of the Oval Office—or the current one.2

Democrats today are united in the belief not only that America is worse off in the world than it was eight years ago, but that what is required is a course correction more fundamental than simply electing a president with a more “bellicose aura.” Instead of talking tough, lumping all our enemies (especially Muslim ones) into the same basket, and assuming allies will follow the United States simply because it is right or powerful, a Democratic foreign policy would take action to improve America’s standing in the world, inspire allies to work willingly with us, conduct tough but serious diplomacy with adversaries, seek to build national unity and international legitimacy instead of polarizing the public and the world, and avoid catastrophic acts of hubris such as the war in Iraq. Despite one of the closest, longest and most bruising primary nomination battles in the Party’s history, Democrats will now unite behind Barack Obama, who has articulated an approach to foreign policy based on the need to break with the Bush approach—to defend traditional American interests forcefully while grappling with new issues and repairing the breach with an alienated world.

The new Democratic Party consensus marks a stark contrast with divisions of the past, such as those between the Humphrey and (Robert) Kennedy wings of the Party in the late 1960s, the Carter and (Edward) Kennedy wings in the late 1970s, the Nunn and Dukakis wings in the late 1980s, or even the Clinton split with the left wing of the Party in the 1990s. Indeed, even in 2004, Democrats were deeply divided between supporters of Howard Dean, who opposed the Iraq war from the start and wanted to attack the Bush Administration from the Left, and John Kerry, John Edwards and most of the other primary candidates, who felt they had to move to the hawkish center lest they be cast by Bush as soft on national security (an effort that in Kerry’s case did not work). The American people, even many Democrats, were not yet convinced that Bush had led the country in the wrong direction or in any event did not know how to change course. Four years later there is far less doubt.

The fact that ideological divisions no longer plague the Party as deeply as in the past was clear throughout the primary debates, where only minimal foreign policy distinctions among the main candidates—Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards (or Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, for that matter) emerged. Senator Clinton, of course, did her best to suggest differences with Obama, pointing to issues such as his readiness to meet with leaders of unsavory regimes, his threat to take military action against terrorists in Pakistan if the government there were unable or unwilling to do so, and his willingness to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against terrorists. These, frankly, were sideshows compared to the fundamental foreign policy principles Clinton, Obama and the other main candidates shared. In terms of both grand themes and specific policy proposals, the respective Foreign Affairs articles written by Obama and Clinton in late 2007 could have been adopted by either candidate without too much trouble. (And both essays contrasted sharply with those of Mitt Romney and John McCain.)

Even on Iraq, while Clinton and Obama sparred vigorously over how long and how consistently either had held their position on ending the war, there was essentially no difference between them when it came to what to do about it. Both pledged to begin a gradual and responsible drawdown of U.S. combat forces while remaining ready to leave in place sufficient forces to deter regional aggression, train Iraqis and fight al-Qaeda. (Obama’s insistence on linking a willingness to train the Iraqi armed forces to political progress differed from Clinton’s offer to do so regardless, but this is hardly the stuff of major party rifts.)

The same was true about Obama’s controversial expression of a willingness to meet with leaders from Iran and other dictatorships. Jon Stewart humorously summarized this “tiny distinction” on The Daily Show: “Obama would be willing to meet with these leaders, and so would Hillary, but [she] won’t promise, even though he didn’t really promise it either.” Think also about the simplistic but revealing questions put to all the Democratic candidates in the course of the 21 Democratic debates: Is there a war on terror? “Yes.” Would they pledge that all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by 2013? “No.” Would they swear that Iran would not develop a nuclear capability under their watch? “I will do everything possible to prevent that.” There was very little blue sky between them.

Given the Democratic consensus on the basic approach to foreign policy and the main issues, what about the mindset, style and advisers of the Party’s nominee? There are several features of Obama’s candidacy that would mark his presidency in positive ways. First, as a 47-year-old with diverse ethnic and geographical roots, Obama will bring a new and distinctive approach to today’s changed world. Only 27 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, he has spent nearly all his adult life in the “post-Cold War” world and so is not bound by the Manichean, highly militarized thinking that characterized that period.

Obama is nevertheless clearly aware that military force has a role to play in the world. He has called for a larger U.S. military, advocated the deployment of at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan, and on many occasions said he would not hesitate to use force to protect U.S. national interests. But he understands that America’s well-being is also affected by new challenges like global warming, the global food crisis, cyber-threats, the spread of infectious disease, and the rise of China and India.

Obama’s international background also allows him to see the world in a usefully different way. While Hillary Clinton mocked Obama’s references to having spent time in Indonesia as a child, the fact of living abroad and having a father from Kenya and a stepfather from Indonesia cannot help but give him an innate appreciation for the way in which nearly six billion non-Americans see the world. Critics will somehow try to suggest that this makes him somehow less “American” than competitors without such experience. I would suggest that just a bit more appreciation for the sensitivities of others might have helped the Bush Administration avoid a style of diplomacy and certain policy decisions that have left America more isolated and resented than at any time in its history. Americans should desire international goodwill not just because they like to be liked, but because it can translate into concrete material and financial support on difficult issues such as the war in Afghanistan and the effort to isolate Iran.

The collegiality of the foreign policy team Obama has assembled would also serve him well if he is elected president. In putting together personnel for his campaign, Obama is reported to have told chief strategist David Axelrod that he didn’t want big egos getting in the way of the campaign’s goals—“no drama” was the theme. That same mantra applies to the foreign policy team. Top advisers such as former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice, former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, former head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff Gregory Craig and the campaign’s foreign policy director Denis McDonough are not only competent and experienced but, taking their cue from the top, collegial and respectful. They can, as Obama puts it, “disagree without being disagreeable.” If Obama wins in November, this would make for a more unified team than is typical of a new administration.

The substantive agreement among the main advisers also contrasts greatly with both the deeply divided Bush team (at least during the first term) and a McCain campaign that seems riven between “realists”, like old McCain friends Richard Burt, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Armitage, and “neocons” like Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol and Randy Scheunemann, the head of the campaign’s foreign policy operation.

Inevitably, many details of what will be an Obama foreign policy remain to be fleshed out. For example, while the principle of willingness to engage directly with adversaries is accepted, decisions will have to be made about whom to engage, when and under precisely what circumstances. Similarly, Obama’s commitment to reach out to conservatives and independents in assembling an administration would be an important manifestation of his desire to get beyond partisanship but will require careful decisions about whom to appoint, to what jobs, and how to make them part of a truly united team. Obviously, within the context of a strategic decision to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq, Obama will have to be prepared to make tactical adjustments to changing conditions on the ground, as he has acknowledged many times.

No one should have any illusions about how great the foreign policy challenge will be for Obama or any other president upon taking the oath of office in January 2009. American foreign policy presents no easy options, especially in the wake of Bush’s performance. Obama and other Democrats understand that Bush’s failures were more than failures of implementation. They were also based on a flawed conceptual framework. On this point, Democrats are more united than they have been for two generations. Obama and his team offer not just an opportunity for change, but for strategic intellectual coherence.

1. Gingrich, “Bush and Lincoln: Echoes of the past in today’s strategic mistakes”, Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2006.
2. Boot, “Go With the Tough Guy”, Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2008.