Vali Nasr is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He served in the Obama administration from 2009-2011 as senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.
Nasr has written a book called The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. I haven’t read the book, but here, via Peter Wehner, is part of what Nasr has to say about President Obama’s lack of leadership in the Middle East:
America – dragged by Europeans into ending butchery in Libya, abandoning Afghanistan to an uncertain future, resisting a leadership role in ending the massacre of civilians in Syria, and then rolling back its commitments to the region to “pivot” to Asia – hardly looks indispensable.
In the cocoon of our public debate Obama gets high marks on foreign policy. That is because his policies’ principal aim is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion – he has done more of the things that people want and fewer of the things we have to do that may be unpopular.
To our allies, however, our constant tactical maneuvers don’t add up to a coherent strategy or a vision of global leadership. Gone is the exuberant American desire to lead the world. In its place there is the image of a superpower tired of the world and in retreat, most visibly from the one area of the world where it has been most intensely engaged. That impression serves neither America’s long-run interest nor stability around the world.
Richard Nixon regarded domestic policy as a distraction from foreign policy, his real love. Nixon’s goal, therefore, was to make domestic policy decisions that kept people — ordinary voters and elites — happy enough with him that they would allow him to remain in charge of foreign policy. The result was a mishmash of policies, some of which were more liberal than those of his Democratic predecessors.
Obama’s main interest is in implementing a transformative domestic agenda. To remain popular enough to have any hope of accomplishing this, he has, as Nasr says, “done more of the things that people want and fewer of the things we have to do that may be unpopular.” The result is something of a mishmash.
But the analogy to Nixon breaks down because Obama has a foreign policy vision to go with his domestic policy vision, and the two are related. The foreign policy vision is very much secondary, but real nonetheless.
Describing Obama’s foreign policy vision is beyond the scope of this post (and to do so in depth may be beyond my ability). Let’s just say that, in my opinion, Obama’s vision does not include “the exuberant American desire to lead the world,” at least not in any conventional sense. And the absence of any concrete manifestation of such a desire by Obama is not down merely to fatigue or American public opinion.