Obama is Learning the Limits of American Foreign Policy. When Will Republicans?

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Jonah Goldberg is critical of President Obama’s opportunistic cast of mind when he deals with foreign policy:

The most plausible interpretation of Obama’s zigzagging approach to foreign policy is that he is simply “winging it,” as Robert W. Merry, editor of the National Interest, writes.

It is difficult to find much, if any, intellectual coherence to the president’s foreign policy. He fought for a surge of troops in Afghanistan but then refused to rally public support for the war he escalated. Worse, he later rendered the surge moot by announcing to our enemies that we’d soon bug out, no matter what.

During Iran’s Green Revolution, he stood pat as the mullahs crushed a democracy movement seeking to overthrow a regime hostile to U.S. interests. In Libya, he intervened to oust a dictator who had become a de facto ally, insisting he couldn’t stand by as innocents were slaughtered. In Syria, a vassal of Iran, he has stood by as innocents were slaughtered.

Goldberg’s tone aside, this is roughly right. The only problem is that he says it as if this is a bad thing. I say: Thank God for winging it. A consistent, ideological approach to foreign policy gave us Afghanistan and Iraq, wars we ended up fighting without any real hope of ever being able to win them. Obama, by contrast, intervened in Libya because there was a realistic chance of achieving his goals, and stayed out of Iran and Syria because there quite plainly wasn’t. Likewise, although Obama’s approach to Egypt has unquestionably been driven by the moment, that’s mostly a reflection of reality: we simply don’t have much leverage there.

This isn’t to say that Obama couldn’t have done better: I think a more consistent support for democratic norms probably would have served us well there. Still, the difference would have been small. $1.5 billion buys us a bit of leverage, but not really that much when there’s revolution in the air. If Goldberg knows of something we could have done to force out Mubarak faster, or prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from winning Egypt’s parliamentary elections, or stop the military from deposing Morsi, I’m all ears.

Besides, I wonder what Goldberg wants? For my money, I’d say Obama’s biggest failures have come precisely when he chose to intervene. If there’s a consistent foreign policy that would have been a relative winner, it probably would have been a foreign policy that simply withdrew from Afghanistan and never intervened in Libya in the first place. Obama’s way might be messy, but the muscle-flexing interventionist approach favored by talk-radio fueled conservatives is flat-out disastrous. So what’s the alternative?


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend