In a recent essay, Harvard professor Stephen Walt offers an explanation for the Obama administration’s foreign policy shortcomings: the President and his team suffer, Walt contends, from “the classic problem of over-commitment.” The “Solve-Everything, Do-Nothing White House” has naively taken on too many problems without a clear sense of what its top priorities are. This, in Walt’s telling, is how the administration has come up short on Iran, Middle East peace, Ukraine, and a host of other issues.
But a closer examination reveals that the diagnosis of “over-commitment” doesn’t explain as much Walt thinks it does. Rather than illuminating the current failures of our foreign policy, the idea of diplomatic overstretch simply serves as a distraction from what’s really wrong.
Walt’s grim appraisal of the supposedly over-committed Obama administration begins with the thorny issues of Iran and Israel/Palestine. These enthusiastic initiatives spearheaded by John Kerry, Walt argues, have been stalled by a host of factors, including opposition from AIPAC and Israel, the skittishness of allies, expended political capital, and butting heads with Netanyahu on two fronts at once.
The problem for Walt’s argument is that—with the possible exception of the last item—nothing on that list is a result of over-commitment. Iran and Middle East peace aren’t proving tough to solve because Obama has taken on too many things; it’s because he’s taken on hard things. Even if Obama had decided that Iran would be his sole foreign policy priority this term, all of the difficulties Walt points to would still be there.
Could over-commitment be a bad thing nonetheless, making an already bad situation worse? Almost certainly. But Walt never makes that case. He cloaks a number of substantive criticisms of the administration’s policy in the guise of a procedural argument about how things should have been approached a different way.
Similarly, on Ukraine—where Walt seems to have the biggest bone to pick with the Obama administration—he is unable to establish that our inadequate response was specifically a result of too many commitments, rather than simply a poor policy stemming from, say, misguided strategic thinking, geopolitical realities, or the simultaneous pursuit of conflicting goals. The diplomatically overstretched Obama “was blindsided by events in Ukraine,” Walt charges, but it’s telling that his subsequent accusations don’t actually say anything about over-commitment. Rather, Walt undercuts his own argument by tracing the problem back in time to years before Obama was even around to mess things up by over-committing himself. Ultimately, Walt lays the blame at the door of “20 years of NATO expansion” and “geostrategic incompetence of the highest order.” This hypothesis, which is consistent with what a number of analysts have concluded in these pages, proves that the problem goes much deeper than the naïve “do-gooder-ism” of a single administration. It’s no coincidence that that the other two issues Walt has a problem with—Iran and Israel/Palestine—are, similarly intractable, ongoing problems that have been confounding policymakers for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s certainly possible that Kerry’s overenthusiastic “shuttle diplomacy” hasn’t helped things, but Walt’s own logic seems to concede that the real problem goes back further than two years.
Herein lies the problem with the over-commitment hypothesis: it allows us to use failures in different parts of the world to explain one another, rather than engaging substantively on how each of those failures came to be. In fact, the internal logic of the over-commitment explanation is circular: pursuing an Iran deal is bad because Crimea will now make it impossible, but Crimea only happened because we were too busy pursuing an impossible Iran deal.
A final problem: Walt rightly points out that it’s important to have a clear set of priorities rather than trying to be everywhere and do everything. It is strange, then, that his piece includes a laundry list of problems that Obama has failed to prioritize, and even stranger that he also lists a number of clearly peripheral issues, like the Malaysian Airlines flight, that might “take over everyone’s in-box in the days/weeks/months ahead.” By reminding us of all of the other global hotspots we’re not paying attention to, isn’t Walt essentially arguing that Obama should be taking on every problem in the world? In other words, endorsing the exact idea that this essay is supposed to critique?
It doesn’t make sense to argue that the Obama administration has made too many commitments and to then name a bunch of other commitments it should have made. The fact that Walt ends up in this logical double bind reveals that his disagreement is not with the extent of the administration’s commitments, it’s with the nature of those commitments – that is, with what has and hasn’t been deemed a top priority. When Walt argues, for instance, that Syria and Afghanistan were neglected in the rush to take on other problems, he’s not really saying that the Obama administration took on too much, he’s saying that it took on the wrong things. And that’s a perfectly valid criticism. But to fully make that critique, we have to actually explain why, say, Iran or Israel is less important than Syria, Afghanistan, or Crimea. And those are incredibly hard explanations to give, both for politicians and for analysts. That’s why it’s easier for critics to make process-level arguments about how the administration hasn’t given sufficient attention to this, or left sufficient bandwidth for that.
The narrative of “over-commitment” is a rhetorically convenient way to unify all of one’s disagreements with the administration under a single explanatory factor. But proving a causal relationship between the level of commitment and the policy outcome requires concrete evidence to show that, had commitment levels been different, the outcome would have been significantly better (and Adam Elkus has already shown us that counterfactuals are hard). Absent that evidence, over-commitment is little more than low-hanging fruit for those with grievances against the administration, and a poor conceptual framework for understanding why things go wrong in foreign policy.
Usha Sahay is an assistant editor at War on the Rocks.