Obama and the Price of Pulling Back From the World
IT is easy to forget that when Barack Obama ran for re-election in 2012, his foreign policy was a huge asset. The United States was out of Iraq and doing O.K. in Afghanistan, and had killed Osama bin Laden. Mitt Romney had nothing to shoot at.
Today the president finds it harder to explain his global strategy. His emphasis on “nation-building” at home seems to point in one direction, Secretary of State John Kerry’s activist diplomacy in another. Uneasy allies worry that Washington has lost interest in them. Congress is challenging the president on issues from trade to Iran. Critics say American leadership is in decline.
The best way to understand Mr. Obama’s predicament is to compare it with that of previous presidents who wound down major wars. He’s not the first to promise a less expensive, more sustainable foreign policy at a time when the country feels overextended. Dwight D. Eisenhower after Korea, Richard M. Nixon after Vietnam, and the first George Bush, after the Cold War, said much the same thing. Their less-is-more record contains good news for Mr. Obama, and clear warnings.
The public has always supported presidents who get America out of stalemated wars. In their first terms, Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Obama reassembled a foreign-policy consensus and were decisively re-elected. Mr. Obama has not lost the argument that America needs relief from global burdens. Polls show the public has no more enthusiasm for the Afghanistan war than he does.
National decisions to retrench, moreover, are not quickly reversed. The military build-downs of the 1950s, ’70s and ’90s lasted longer than the buildups before them. The huge post-9/11 surge in Pentagon spending may take a decade to roll back. So, if the president wants a breather to focus resources on domestic needs, he is likely to get it.
Past retrenchments bring good news for Mr. Kerry, too. Military downsizing has never ruled out diplomatic activism. The two go hand in hand. To reduce East-West tensions, Eisenhower proposed Atoms for Peace, Open Skies, a nuclear test ban and more. Nixon pursued his “Generation of Peace” through an opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, and Henry A. Kissinger’s razzle-dazzle Middle East diplomacy. Even the first President Bush, whose last two years were a mini-retrenchment, had his own big-think slogan, a “New World Order.”
These presidents sought global stability with less American policing. By comparison, Mr. Obama’s rhetoric is standard stuff. Critics ping him for wanting to heal the planet and reconcile with adversaries. But that’s how presidents in retrenchment talk. Mopping up after disaster requires compensatory inspiration.
For Mr. Obama, that is the reassuring part. But play out the comparisons further, and they become less encouraging. Once presidents exit the wars they were elected to fix, their job gets harder. The accompanying diplomacy, energetic at first, tends to sputter and die.
In the 1950s, none of Ike’s efforts to reach out to adversaries achieved anything. The “Spirit of Geneva” and “Spirit of Camp David” — labels celebrating his personal summitry — became terms of mockery. In the ’70s, after Nixon’s first visit, relations with China were on hold for years; Mr. Kissinger’s Middle East mediation stalled out after two military disengagements; and “détente” with the Soviets became so controversial that Gerald R. Ford retired the word.
An activist foreign policy is hard to sustain on a shrinking material base. In the ’70s Leonid I. Brezhnev rejected the arms-control concessions that American presidents asked of him. He was building more and bigger missiles; the Americans were not. In diplomacy, you need something to bargain with. Retrenchment typically gives you less of it.
The Obama administration has built new leverage in one crucial case. A tough American-led sanctions regime has gotten Iran’s attention. Elsewhere, Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry count too much on negotiation to achieve their goals. Ruling out an assertive role in Syria’s civil war reduced American influence over both government and rebels. No surprise, then, that the “Geneva II” peace conference has deadlocked.
Resources will test Mr. Obama’s retrenchment strategy in other regions. In 2011, with the Pentagon budget under pressure, the president pledged that spending cuts would not affect American forces in the Pacific. The vow was a crucial element of his “pivot” to East Asia, and the region’s governments and publics will note carefully how fully it is kept.
Delivering won’t be easy. The administration has had trouble fulfilling smaller commitments. Early in the Arab Spring, Mr. Obama sketched plans to support democratic evolution in the Middle East. Aides say he is “disappointed” by the poor follow-through on his aid pledges. (But not disappointed enough to push hard to keep them.)
History has another sobering lesson: retrenchment always strengthens Congress’s role in foreign policy. Mr. Kissinger raged against legislation that blocked most-favored-nation trading status for the Soviet Union, and covert aid for rebels in Angola. Eisenhower ridiculed Congressional proposals to increase the defense budget.
Mr. Obama faces similar pressure. In his recent State of the Union address, he threatened to veto any bill that imposed new sanctions on Iran while talks were underway. Let’s hope he also knows how badly previous administrations handled similar challenges. They were quick to label Congressional critics as extremists or tools of special interests, slow to recognize when the critics had a strong bipartisan base. Mr. Kissinger called the Angola ban a sign of McGovernite Democrats’ nihilism. In fact, Republican senators from Jacob K. Javits to Jesse Helms supported it. Even Eisenhower’s complaint about the influence of the “military-industrial complex” was one volley in a debate he knew he was losing. Those who pushed for greater activism, like John F. Kennedy, already had won.
So what’s a retrenchment president to do? If Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush — our best prepared foreign-policy presidents — found it hard to manage a downsized strategy, Mr. Obama should expect the same. He won’t abandon retrenchment, nor does he need to. The domestic foundations of American power do need shoring up. But he needs to tend to its international foundations as well.
The president and his advisers sometimes do the opposite. When they say they want to pay less attention to the Middle East, they undermine the president’s own top goals: a nuclear deal with Iran and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. These may be achievable only if allies and adversaries foresee a more active American role in the region. (Eisenhower, to be fair, didn’t get this either. When Nikita S. Khrushchev threatened West Berlin, Ike proposed cutting American troop levels in Europe. Congressional critics thought he had lost his way.)
Mr. Obama would also make retrenchment more effective by rebuilding American global influence. He favors ambitious trade pacts, one for Europe and one for East Asian allies, that cannot succeed without sustained presidential effort. Mr. Obama should recall that the first George Bush, even in his last days as president, managed to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Like his predecessors, Mr. Obama rejects the idea that retrenchment means the fading of American power. Anyone who says America is in decline, he harrumphed in his 2012 State of the Union address, “doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Retrenchment, he believes, is the way to avoid decline.
For a candidate seeking re-election, this was smart political positioning. Today, Mr. Obama has to focus on results. He will discover, as past presidents did, that popular views of retrenchment change quickly. After overreaching abroad and under performance at home, pulling back seems mere common sense. But a strategy for preventing decline can start to look like one that accelerates, and even embraces it.
White Houses rarely see this coming. No American president has ever begun a retrenchment and then, as new challenges arose, found the path back to greater activism. Can Barack Obama figure out how to be the first? He’d be making history.