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Brookings Now

In Foreign Policy, Obama Looks for Dead Center of Where American People Are

Fred Dews

Many within the United States and others abroad continue to question the United States’ role in the world. Understandably, Americans have grown wary of the country’s role in the world, some asking whether the U.S. still has the power and influence to lead the international community, while others question why the United States must still take on this seemingly singular responsibility.

Yesterday afternoon, on the eve of a major speech by President Obama addressing these questions, Senior Fellow Robert Kagan released a new essay entitled, “The Allure of Normalcy,” which was published in the latest edition of The New Republic. Kagan argues that the United States has no choice but to be “exceptional.”

During the event, which included Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, and Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, Kagan explained his “basic view about Obama” in terms of foreign policy this way:

You really never know what is in a president’s head. … But presidents generally find themselves attempting to do what they think the majority of the American people want them to do. It’s very rare that presidents push hard against what they think the majority wants to do.


And my reading of Obama from the beginning has been, he’s always going to look for the dead center, in way, on foreign policy, which he doesn’t really care about I think. So on foreign policy he’s going to look for the dead center of where the American public is. And I think he tried to find that dead center in his first two years.


And I think he decided that although he personally was going to pull out of the wars that Americans didn’t like, I think his sense was he couldn’t pull out too rapidly in the case of Afghanistan. He had to prove that he was a tough guy in Afghanistan. He saw the need for the use of force in Libya. But he was also pushed into it in a way that Clinton and others had been pushed into it. And that was his read of the American public.


And I think what has happened is, as he has gone through this process, I think what he sees in the American public more and more and more is that they don’t want to do any of these things. Now he’s also encouraged this to some extent with the speeches that he’s given. But again, presidents don’t tell Americans what they don’t want to hear generally. Roosevelt didn’t for four or five years. It was only when he went into a panic that he started pushing against it.


So I think what has happened is that in this kind of dialogue between Obama and the people, he has discovered that he really doesn’t have to do anything.


He’s about to give a big speech on American global leadership. And on the day before he announces that we’re going to have all troops out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves office. He doesn’t see there’s a contradiction in those things.

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Fred Dews

Managing Editor, New Digital Products




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