Obama The Restrainer?

There is a discussion over at War On The Rocks regarding Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Paul Miller of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin argues

…In his [Obama] eagerness to avoid making Bush’s mistakes, he made a whole new set of mistakes. He over-interpreted the recent past, fabricating the myth about a hyper-interventionist establishment. As a result, he overreacted to the situation he inherited in 2009 and, crucially, never adjusted during his eight years in office. In this sense and others, he contrasts starkly with Bush, who made major changes in his second term. The result is that Obama retrenched when he should have engaged. He oversaw the collapse of order across the Middle East and the resurgence of great power rivalry in Europe while mismanaging two wars and reducing America’s military posture abroad to its smallest footprint since World War II. Despite the paeans of Obama’s admirers, this is not a foreign policy legacy future presidents will want to emulate.

Trevor Thrall and John Glaser, both of the CATO institute counter this interpretation, writing

There were many things to dislike about American foreign policy during the Obama years, but too much restraint simply was not one of them. Miller is right to argue that Obama bucked the conventional wisdom in Washington far less often than he himself claimed, but Miller fails to mention that the worst flaws of Obama’s foreign policy — an overreliance on military intervention and overconfidence in the ability of the United States to control political outcomes abroad — were simply carryovers from the Bush administration.

To be sure, Obama was not the one who invaded Afghanistan or Iraq, but he embraced and expanded the global war on terrorism in every other dimension. On his watch, Obama participated in regime change in Libya, ordered a massive increase in a global drone campaign, provided material support to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, and escalated (and later maintained) open-ended nation building and internal defense efforts in Afghanistan. Obama was many things, but a restrainer he was not.

My interpretation of this sort of discussion, which has been ongoing for at least the past 5 years, is that those who argue that Obama was a restrainer are confusing a lack of leadership with a foreign policy ideology. All Presidents must work within the system but no one who subscribes to the restraint outlook on foreign policy would have gotten involved in places like Libya, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, or Yemen.

Here is Paul’s original essay.

Trevor and John’s response can be found here.

Long reads but highly recommended.

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