Garfinkle’s ‘Obama As Innocent Abroad’ — American Foreign Policy As Rorschach Test

We first met Adam Garfinkle 30 years ago or so when he was starting out at FPRI. We’re under no illusions about his ideological prisms. His re-printed piece in “The American Interest”, ‘An Innocent Abroad: The Obama Foreign Policy’ easily could come from Hudson or the usual suspects. Yet he correctly observes:

Indeed, the fuzzy indeterminacy that characterizes the Obama foreign policy holds true even at the highest echelon of strategy. The United States is the world’s pre-eminent if not hegemonic power. Since World War II it has set the normative standards and both formed and guarded the security and economic structures of the world. In that capacity it has provided for a relatively secure and prosperous global commons, a mission nicely convergent with the maturing American self-image as an exceptionalist nation. To do this, however, the United States has had to maintain a global military presence as a token of its commitment to the mission and as a means of reassurance to those far and wide with a stake in it. This has required a global network of alliances and bases, the cost of which is not small and the maintenance of which, in both diplomatic and other terms, is a full-time job.*


Against this definition of strategic mission there have always been those in the United States who have dissented, holding that we do, ask and expect much too much, and get into gratuitous trouble as a result. Some have preferred outright isolationism, but most serious skeptics of the status quo have preferred a posture of ‘offshore balancing’. Remove the bases and end the alliances, they have argued, and the US government will be better able, at less risk and far less cost to the nation, to balance against threatening developments abroad, much as America’s strategic mentor, Great Britain, did throughout most of the 19th century.

This is the core conversation Americans have been having about the US global role since at least 1945. To one side we recall George McGovern’s 1972 ‘Come Home, America’ campaign plank, the Mansfield Amendment that would have removed US troops from Europe in mid-Cold War, and the early Carter administration’s proposal to remove US troops from South Korea spoken in rhythm to speeches decrying an “inordinate fear of communism”. To the other side has been almost everyone and everything else, so that the offshore approach has always been turned back, at least until now. Where is the Obama administration in this great debate? We don’t really know; the evidence, once again, suggests ambivalence. . .

Taken together, then, the administration’s track record, encompassing the whole spectrum from discrete policy arenas to the lofty heights of grand strategy, suggests the foreign policy equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. Observers can see in it what they have wanted to see. Some have tagged the Obama administration a re-run of the Carter administration, but the fit is obviously imperfect; it’s very hard to see Carter during his first or second year in office ordering those Predator strikes, even harder to imagine him holding his tongue on human rights. Some have seen a replay of Nixon and Kissinger: Realpolitik hiding behind feel-good talk about allies and peace and the rest, trying simultaneously to play an inherited weak hand and set the stage for a grand bargain—this time with Iran instead of China. Still others think they are witness to the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: a shrewd opportunist who knows the limits set by domestic constraints, and whose main concern is national economic stabilization and social strengthening against the day when American power must meet a true test of destiny. The name game can go on because, while no great successes have sprouted forth from the Obama foreign policy, no great debacles have emerged either.

Garfinkle also quite properly emphasizes how Obama’s personality shapes national security decision-making. We also agree with Garfinkle’s historical summary of the NSC in that context; we said it here before.

Garfinkle’s Krauthammer-esque psychological pastiche on Obama is clumsy. (How dare Obama not embrace American triumphalism in current circumstances?) Nonetheless, Garfinkle’s fundamental critique that Obama is simultaneously control-oriented and disengaged is valid. We’ve seen the same odd dynamic and resulting passivity Garfinkle describes play out with Obama’s domestic policy. If one puts rhetoric aside, Obama’s foreign policy (viz Foggy Bottom’s foreign ‘relations’) devolves into merely attenuating and modulating the Bush Administration’s excesses in ever more tactical initiatives.

To be fair, no modern president ever inherited such a catastrophic economic meltdown, two failed wars and a nation perceived as a rogue state. Garfinkle can’t make that cognitive connection. Garfinkle also unduly (but expectedly) minimizes the importance of simple engagement in foreign relations (his distinction). George Schultz the other day said something profound. Over time, a successful foreign policy (Garfinkle’s distinction again) requires unglamorous gardening. Day to day tending and nurturing, pruning and watering. When a crisis or major policy initiative unfolds, this gardening ensures working relationships exist. (Schultz was implicitly criticizing the MachtPolitik of Cheney/Bush).

To declare as Garfinkle does Obama’s ‘engagement’ approach a failure after two years overlooks Bush’s wreckage and misses Schultz’s point. Garfinkle’s instrumental view of human interaction is premised on whether someone does what you want. If not, why interact in the first place? People – surprise- will act in their national interest generally. But area studies, language capability, a persistent dialogue clarify those interests and areas of possible cooperation.

Disagreement may still exist. It is, however, one based on clarity, as opposed to catastrophic ignorance. Say, what non-language trained, non-area experienced Neocons declared 2002-03 — that Iraq was always secular no need to worry about sectarian matters. Given how many are startled by China’s unexpected erratic behavior in 2010, Shutlz’s gardening — persistent engagement — across the Pacific Rim may be the best investment around.

Where Does This Leave Things?

Obama’s problem is not a psychological disorder or just inheriting a country falling apart; most of it’s because he simply lacked any executive experience before running the United States. His tight decision loop and failure to delegate meaningfully? It’s typical for D.C. Every Senate and House office, most think tanks or other entities are similarly personality-based, control-oriented and often ad hoc. It’s a major reason why Les Aspin was a complete disaster at OSD for Clinton. People running a local Best Buy or Target truly have more substantive management experience. Many pro-Obama people wished he ran for governor first.

The good news? Obama can learn if he’s open to it. Will he? Garfinkle’s indisputably right saying no one knows.

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* Your iGadget showing a blank here? Kvetch to Steve Jobs.