Modest Goals, Modest Results

Those who bother to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy (and let’s be honest, most Americans just don’t care) often focus on the results we’ve failed to achieve.  In the Middle East, as elsewhere, it’s true that many desirable results have gone unachieved: the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” is so moribund that many question whether a two-state solution is even a realistic goal anymore, Syria continues to disintegrate, Iran’s centrifuges spin on, a new spasm of violent unrest grips Egypt, and sectarian violence continues to thrive in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What’s new?  The Middle East has problems.

But the president’s foreign policy rests on the premise that we can’t solve all of those problems.  Because he didn’t say he was going to stop the killing in Syria, its continuation isn’t a policy failure.  It’s a tragedy, but not a failure.  You can’t “fail” to get results you never tried to achieve.


The bold international actions of President Obama’s first term were the intervention in Libya and the killing of Osama bin Laden.  The former served its immediate goal of preventing a massacre in Benghazi by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces—though some unfairly point to Libya’s current disarray as evidence of the intervention’s failure, as if letting Qaddafi fight and kill longer would have somehow prevented the current violence.  The latter was straightforward, if risky—bringing bin Laden to justice (or, as it happened, bringing justice to him) was a foreign policy goal no president would have been likely to modify or scrap.

Both of these actions, different as they were, were relatively quick and small-scale.  In both cases, we got results.  But otherwise, the administration is largely letting things play out.  The president does not aspire to build or liberate nations.  He’s stepping back and slowing down.  He withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, where our influence has since withered considerably, and his advisors now debating just how small a force to leave in Afghanistan, where we never had much influence at all.

This is not to say that the President has shown no initiative.  It’s just that the goals and the posture are modest.  President Obama reached out to Iran in an effort to strike a deal on its nuclear program but, once spurned, became rather incoherent and indecisive.  He’s given some financial support to aid efforts in and around Syria, and deployed Patriot missile batteries to Turkey (defensively and in keeping with our NATO obligations) but only mobilized meager diplomatic military resources to try to stop the conflict.  He’s made uncomfortable noises about Israeli settlements, but never got in Netanyahu’s face.  The arc of history, as Obama is fond of saying, is long.  His America speaks softly, and no one expects it to use that big stick.

Some believe that this scaling back of our ambitions is exactly the adjustment America needs, especially after a decade of war that it’s very easy to argue wasn’t worth it.

The president is cautious and inward-looking, and so is the public.  Even the administration’s political opponents have difficulty finding criticisms of his foreign policy that will resonate with anyone (that difficulty may help explain Republicans’ collective leap to exploit the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack in the final weeks before last November’s election).

Whatever one thinks of the “Obama Doctrine,” it is decidedly non-grandiose: expect neither fiascoes nor breakthroughs.  And ignore the people who say “we’ve failed” when people kill each other and countries fall apart far away.  Failure is the wrong word.  We didn’t fail.  For better or worse, we’ve decided not to try.

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