Hasty Retreat

March 22, 2014

Stephen Walt has diagnosed the ills of the Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy as “the classic problem of over-commitment”, accusing the Administration of “Pursuing multiple objectives without a clear set of priorities”.  So persuasive was Walt in this piece, that Ryan Evans, our esteemed leader here at WOTR took to Twitter to opine:

I often disagree w/ @StephenWalt, but he really nailed it in this piece http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/03/18/the_solve_everything_do_nothing_obama_white_house … Couldn’t have said it better myself #endorse

When I read this Tweet, I found myself enthused to read Walt’s piece, a feeling I only infrequently enjoy. Why, if Ryan Evans—my personal “reasonable man” test—endorses something Walt believes (not on my “reasonable man” list), perhaps Walt has stumbled up sudden wisdom and insight.  But alas, I was wrong, and so must perhaps re-evaluate my reliance on Evans as a policy weather vane.

Before getting to meat of my argument, let me take just a brief moment to express my continuing amazement that Dr. Walt’s advanced case of intellectual Tourette Syndrome has not further diminished his credibility.  No matter what the U.S. foreign policy ill, “AIPAC” and “the Israel Lobby” are never found far from blame, and are in many cases, clearly identified with it.  This piece is no exception.

While Walt joins the chorus of those who believe the Obama foreign policy is in trouble and that it lacks a clear set of priorities (both of which I believe), his prescription for the ills besetting the President is to become less engaged diplomatically, to ensure that our reach does not exceed our grasp.  Presumably, a more narrowly defined set of interests guided by a “…clear set of priorities…” would move Mr. Obama’s second term back into a policy sweet-spot Dr. Walt would find more to his liking.  This should not be a surprise coming from a thinker who seems consistently to believe that what the world needs more is less America, that somehow, a less engaged United States would be better for everyone.

The problem is not one of diplomatic over-commitment.  Rather, it is one of Presidential under-commitment.  President Obama’s foreign policy continues to fall short of the mark not because it is over-committed, but because it has from the beginning, been guided by the first principle of “do no harm.”  That is, do no harm to the domestic agenda.   “If only we can get allies to solve problems for us, if only we can rely on international organizations to mediate hotspots, if only we can issue sufficiently stern warnings, well then, we can concentrate on the real reason we are here, and that is to remake the relationship between the government and the governed.  And if the world around us gets in the way, make as little noise as possible.”  Call it what you will—“leading from behind”, a “light footprint” or whatever—the result is that we are choosing to slowly retire from our position of world leadership not because we cannot afford to sustain it, but because this President has chosen not to value it.  Other nations have measured the President and found him wanting.  A little Machiavelli would be nice in these times, with the United States being both loved and feared.  But if it can be only one, it should be feared.  And it is not.

Walt does get something right; we do need clear priorities.  And the number one priority must be to re-establish the United States as the nation that cannot be ignored.  Our prosperity is not diminished by cost of diplomatic and military power.  It is the result of it.

Bryan McGrath (@ConsWahoo) is the founding Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group. A retired Naval Officer, Bryan spent 21 years on active duty including a tour in command of USS BULKELEY (DDG 84).  His final duties ashore included serving as Team Lead and Primary Author of the US Navy’s 2007 Maritime Strategy “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.” McGrath is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute and Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower.

Image: Alvesgaspar