In the Arena

Obama as Jeffersonian Carterite? Hmmm.

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Walter Russell Mead, usually a very fine foreign policy thinker, has a piece in the new issue of Foreign Policy that sort of compares Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter…and to Thomas Jefferson in his attitudes about America’s place in the world. I don’t find it very convincing. Here’s Mead’s definition of a Jeffersonian foreign policy:

Jeffersonians… want the United States to minimize its commitments and, as much as possible, dismantle the national-security state.

That doesn’t sound very much like Obama to me.

In fact, none of Mead’s four historic foreign policy tendencies really fit. Obama is certainly not an (Andrew) Jacksonian–a national strength defense hawk. But he does have some qualities of (Woodrow) Wilsonian idealism and even more of (Alexander) Hamiltonian realism:

Hamiltonians share the first Treasury secretary’s belief that a strong national government and a strong military should pursue a realist global policy and that the government can and should promote economic development and the interests of American business at home and abroad.

Mead sees evidence of Jeffersonianism in Obama’s lengthy Afghan policy review, his attempt to negotiate with Iran and his tentative tilt away from Israel in the middle east. I’m not so sure. Obama did send a mixed message in his Afghan policy, announcing an escalation…and proposing a de-escalation. But the former was far more solid than the latter: I’d guess that July 2011 will allow some of the safer, non-Taliban areas to be transferred to Afghan control (the Germans may be able to leave Mazar-e-Sharif, for example), but the troops fighting in Pashtun/Taliban areas in the south and east won’t be going anywhere. What made the extended review so…extended was Obama’s stubborn effort to push the US military, against its wishes, into the quickest possible deployment so that he will have a full fighting-season to determine whether the Afghan policy is plausible or not. Meanwhile, he has added 50,000 troops. He has vastly increased the U.S. commitment to helping Pakistan both militarily–but with greater restraints than Bush provided–and with an historic boost in economic and humnanitarian aid. That does not seem very Jeffersonian to me; it’s the opposite of a retreat from the region. It’s the announcement of a long-term partnership.

As for Iran, Obama did spend his first year attempting to negotiate with the regime…but Mead’s contention that the President saw this as his equivalent of Nixon’s opening to China is just dead wrong. Iran is a much smaller piece of the puzzle than China was–and Obama has used his willingness to negotiate as a tactic to bring the rest of the world on board for a new round of sanctions, given Iran’s refusal to play (he may succeed, even with Russia and China, according to the latest reports). That isn’t very Jeffersonian, either. It is a ramping up of U.S. involvement with Iran–going to war isn’t the only option–and a Wilsonian embrace of multilateral institutions like Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the UN Security Council. (As is Obama’s commitment to the global climate change talks, which Mead doesn’t mention.)

As for the middle east peace process, Obama’s first attempt to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the table was his most significant–and embarrassing–failure. But it can hardly be considered Jeffersonian. It is more of a return to the realism practiced during the George H.W. Bush Administration, an attempt to achieve a more balanced presence in the region that also presupposes an enduring U.S. involvement in the negotiations, not a retreat.

In fact, Mead’s load-bearing supposition–that Obama is more interested in domestic policy and wants to retreat from the world so he can pay more attention to perfecting our democracy–is very much open to debate. It’s been my strong impression, confirmed by the President’s closest aides, that Obama is obsessed with foreign policy. He sees himself as uniquely positioned, given his childhood overseas and his multi-ethnic heritage, to make some real progress in settling some of the world’s more vexing problems, especially those that involve the Muslim world. That’s certainly a Wilsonian aspiration, but he is also very much aware of the limits of the possible (and who wouldn’t be after the George W. Bush fiasco)–in a way that can be described as Hamiltonian realism. He hasn’t hammered the Chinese on human rights (he didn’t even meet with the Dalai Lama), but he has nudged the Chinese toward a more active role in Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and perhaps Iran.

The overall vision seems just right. Obama’s Nobel address–delivered, most likely, after Mead wrote this piece–seems a brilliantly balanced presentation of the principles that should undergird an activist American foreign policy. The problem is implementation. Obama is going to have to be a very wise tactician to make his strategy work. His middle east fiasco demonstrates that may have some problems in that regard. And that is where, I suppose, Carter comes in: if Obama, in the end, seems more wimpy than purposeful, if the world is too tough for him, he will seem Carteresque–although even that is unfair, given Carter’s successful middle east peace effort and his decision to place Pershing missiles in Europe.

The appearance of wimpiness is a potential problem for Obama, especially given the ravings of the current crop of  Jackson-Wilson neocon fantasists. George H. W. Bush was, famously, called a wimp, too. But Bush was probably the most adept foreign policy President since Eisenhower. Now that Obama has established that America is, once again, willing to work with the rest of the world, he has the leeway to be more forceful in 2010. How he uses this power–in his dealings with the Chinese, Iranians, Israelis and all the rest–will determine how successful he is in managing America’s restoration as a global diplomatic force. This is anything but the Jeffersonian retreat the Mead suggests.

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