Obama: Hobbesian Optimist

Regardless of your opinion of President Obama, you should read Jeffrey Goldberg’s 20,000-word feature The Obama Doctrine in this month’s The Atlantic. It is a rare and revealing look into his foreign policy worldview and how he thinks. This is the sort of nuanced, honest journalism that makes you a wiser political thinker and voter. And it is depressingly rare in contemporary political discourse.

Goldberg’s description of Obama is great:

He has a tragic realist’s understanding of sin, cowardice, and corruption, and a Hobbesian appreciation of how fear shapes human behavior. And yet he consistently, and with apparent sincerity, professes optimism that the world is bending toward justice. He is, in a way, a Hobbesian optimist.

A Hobbesian optimist. What a great line. I think I will adopt that moniker.

Seriously, go read The Obama Doctrine.

Since this is such a long article, I’ll try to keep my remarks brief mentioning only my own ideological commitments, what I thought were the highlights of the article, and why I think Obama’s approach towards foreign policy is one that we should continue to pursue.

Let me be clear– I wholeheartedly agree with Obama’s perspective on the appropriate role for the United States in international affairs. His internationalist/realist approach is the one I have held since I first started studying the subject. This often put me at odds with colleagues in graduate school and nearly everyone I knew outside of my insular academic world (though for very different reasons). Hawkish (Hamiltonian/Wilsonian) neocons complained that my pragmatism was too cautious– we would be letting a golden opportunity to remake the world in our own image as the sole super power slip through our fingers! Interventionist (Wilsonian) liberals argued that it was our moral obligation to stop atrocities and madmen the world over. And the less sophisticated, uber-hawkish (Jacksonian) population that dominates most of my middle-American homeland scolded me for not be willing to sacrifice (other people) in order to stand up for our “honor.” Inherent to each of these criticisms is the notion that the United States can and should compel other nations to do as we say by threat (or use) of force on any and every topic. The results of the last twenty-four years leave me pretty convinced that Obama has it right– involving America in conflicts where we have no serious and direct threat, lack concrete goals/outcomes, and are expected to go it alone is a losing proposition.

As Obama clearly states, the United States can and must set the international agenda– nothing is accomplished without it. This illustrates both our continued place at the head of the table and the sway our word holds in the court of international public opinion (so much for being diminished!). But over-reach caused by interventionism and unilateral action are real concerns. In fact, overextension of American power is a much greater threat to our national security than any single actor or state in our current global community. Like the President, I am unlikely to consider many challenges as direct threats to the United States, consider the use of force as the final measure, prefer putting an end to the “free rides” that our allies in Europe and the Middle East have been taking advantage of, and view the economic and political (in)stability of rival great powers (real and imagined) of far greater importance than any potential direct military conflict.

I think Obama demolishes, quite convincingly, the nonsense about “looking tough” or acting crazy to scare your enemies. This idiotic posturing has been pushed forward by the national security establishment and parrotted by the faux-wonks in the press for so long that it almost seems reflexive at this point. This Cold War relic needs to be retired. Containment is as dead as Kennan.* And it never worked very well to begin with.

While Goldberg provides a pretty broad explanation of Obama’s foreign policy, including his desire to pivot towards Asia (as well as Latin America and Africa) and away from the Middle East, the conflict in Syria is central to the narrative. He uses it not only to position Obama as a realist but to explain the President’s belief that the region should be considered a peripheral interest. The Obama Doctrine is summed up in four major points:

  1. As our dependence on foreign oil has decreased the Middle East becomes increasingly less important to the US economy. Without oil, it holds little geopolitical value.
  2. Even if the Middle East was of high importance, there is almost nothing that the United States can actively do to improve/stabilize the region.
  3. Our interventionist tendencies manifest themselves in acts of war, deaths of US soldiers, contractors, and aid workers, high casualties among local populations, and decreased respect and credibility in the region (all of which have negative impacts on terrorism and internal US support for activity in the area).
  4. The irrational forces of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism will ultimately lose to the rational thought, diplomacy, and the expertise of technocrats and bureaucrats.

Ultimately, this last point is the one that drives Obama (and his “doctrine”). It is also the source of his tension with both his opponents in the US and with our allies abroad. As Goldberg points out, President Obama believes “that history has sides.” Foes (like Assad, ISIS, and Putin) and friends (the Saudis, Bibi, and many of our European allies) who believe in the old ways have intimated that Obama’s measured approach shows the shrinking power of the United States. While lunatics shout about Obama making the US a laughingstock internationally (and should be roundly ignored as the partisan hacks they are), his more sane critics claim that his unwillingness to use force in places like Syria weakens our credibility and emboldens our enemies. This ignores rule 2 and 3 of the Obama Doctrine, which clearly outline how failed interventions concretely weaken America and lower our credibility in the unstable regions where that really matters. Many of our allies found him difficult to deal with– largely because he refuses to let them dictate the use of American military power while letting us foot the bill in blood and treasure. The Obama Doctrine is about preventing overextension by choosing when and where to actively engage through cool and careful analysis. Far from making the nation weaker, it keeps us safe from our greatest threat: our own hubris.





* For what it is worth, Kennan largely maintained that the US did not need to engage in a militaristic form of containment which tended to concentrate on particular strong points (often of little or no strategic value to either the US or Soviet Union), instead favoring a political containment pursued at a global scale.

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