Walter Russell Mead surveys the wreckage of President Obama’s foreign policy and wonders whether there will be a late course correction:
Jimmy Carter (a man whose basic foreign policy instincts are very close to President Obama’s) had a sudden moment of clarity when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. As his defenders correctly point out, the decisions he made in the last 18 months of his presidency prepared the way for Ronald Reagan’s more confrontational approach.
It’s a moment like this that President Obama needs. Perhaps at some point the accumulation of snubs, rebuffs, and failures coming out of his Syria policy will help him push the reset button on a foreign policy approach that’s increasingly corroding his and his country’s standing in the world.
My guess? It won’t happen.
For one thing, Obama is more arrogant than Jimmy Carter was. More importantly, it was impossible for a president to blow off Cold War setbacks. If the Soviet Union made a fool out of the U.S. president, people noticed and the opposition party pounced.
Nowadays, few Americans care if Russian diplomacy humiliates the U.S. and few care what happens on the ground in places like Syria. Few Republicans will pounce on Obama’s foreign policy failures because (1) the public isn’t much concerned about them and (2) most Republicans seem to share the unwillingness to use hard power that underlies Obama’s failures. When push came to shove in Syria, Republicans were less inclined to use military force than Obama was.
It’s also worth mentioning that Carter still had to face the electorate when he changed course. That impending rendezvous may have helped him attain his moment of clarity.
Similarly, to the extent that Obama got national security and foreign policy issues right during his first term, I believe it was due mainly to the electoral imperative. Now, no such imperative exists.
But because the electorate isn’t much concerned about foreign policy, it was never a serious constraint on Obama. Thus, I would argue that American is getting from Obama roughly the foreign policy it deserves.