Obama: Principles and Pragmatism

Because reality is never ordered and always unpredictable, Presidents should be counseled to avoid setting rigid agendas, or developing too-grand a vision to define their approach to foreign affairs. In fact, looking back in history, it is safe to say that Presidents are most often defined as successful not by the agendas they set, but by how they adapt their agendas to respond to crises that unpredictable reality that sets for them.

Presidents should define general policy goals and the principles that will guide their actions. They should articulate their understanding of the national interest and how best to secure it. Where there are conflicts or crises that affect those interests, Presidents should engage where solutions can or must be found. All the while, they must remain flexible enough to be able to recognize and meet emerging challenges.

Given all of this, I believe that those commentators, from the left and right, who are pushing President-elect Obama to lay out "grand strategies," "new global visions," or to set detailed priorities and timetables, are dead wrong.

It was, after all, the Bush Administration’s rigid adherence to "visions" and "doctrines" that helped to create the mess Obama will inherit on January 20th, 2009. Bush began his Presidency meandering without direction through varied foreign fields. First there was an awkward, yet tense, stand-off with China. Then, what was to be a grand launching of a Western Hemispheric initiative was ruined by a poorly-timed confrontation with Iraq. This bungling was matched by an inconsistent, and oftentimes, neglectful approach to calming the troubled waters of the Middle East.
Post 9/11, the rigid Bush with the "global vision" was born and, with that, the disasters that followed. Bush became one of our most ideological Presidents, proclaiming an adherence to policies that reflected: an almost mystical belief in democracy as a transformative force; the imposition of a Manichean ("good-evil" duality) world view on the many conflicts raging throughout the Middle East; a belief in the curative powers of force (when used by the "good"); and the inevitable triumph of the "good." All of these aspects of Bush’s "vision" were applied in succession in Afghanistan, Iraq, and then through Israel as a surrogate in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. And because, in each instance, those actions ignored reality, chaos ensued.

Some lessons can be learned from the Clinton years, as well. Clinton, it will be remembered, began his term committed to, as it was put then, "focusing like a laser beam" to address the ills of an ailing economy. Early on, he was tripped up by the unexpected (a few embarrassing failures in Cabinet appointments, and a tussle with Pentagon over the issue of "gays in the military").

What soon came to dominate Clinton’s agenda, however, was an unpredictable world with crises looming large in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia. U.S. troops were withdrawn from Somalia. An effort was made to combine diplomacy and the military to tamp down unrest and create a more stable order in Haiti. And after a prolonged and agonizing domestic debate, U.S. force and diplomacy were eventually used to bring peace to Bosnia.

Clinton was handed an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and, for a time, made the most of it, committing U.S. support to the peacemakers while, at the same time, applying pressure (though not in an even-handed way) to help move the process forward.

Areas where Clinton failed were in his handling of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan – the latter because he abandoned it, the others because of his rigid application of the "doctrine" of "dual-containment." This solved nothing, only forestalling and aggravating a set of difficult policy choices.

Given the enormity of the challenges our next President will face, it is impressive to see, at this early stage, emerging signs of a principled and pragmatic Obama Administration.

His principles are clear: a return to realism-based diplomacy; a commitment to multi-lateralism and a turning away from the Bush-era aggressive unilateralism and preemption; and support for the rule of law and human rights. Additionally, Obama has enunciated his commitment to withdraw from Iraq; refocus efforts to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban; belief in the importance of dialogue and engagement with Iran and other nation-state adversaries; and a commitment to Israeli-Arab peacemaking. All of these are worthy goals but, given the mess Obama inherits, will take time to implement (and may be delayed by the unexpected – like the fallout over last week’s horror in Mumbai).

Even now, however, Obama has critics who will not wait. His appointments are being criticized, as are the slightest hints that the 16-month withdrawal timetable from Iraq may be loosened.

Some of the problems Obama may face are, to be sure, the result of distortions in policy formulation that occur during the campaign season. It is here, bumping up against one’s Democratic and Republican rivals that pledges are made, becoming near-doctrinal statements: like a firm date to leave Iraq or unrealistic and ultimately damaging commitments like those made to Israel regarding Jerusalem, or to end U.S. dependence on Middle East and Venezuelan oil by 2012.

What was interesting about Obama’s performance during the campaign season was that while he, too, made some "silly season" pledges, he often-times did so with enough nuance to protect his ability to remain flexible enough to confront unpredictable realities. His appointments of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, General James Jones as National Security Advisor, and the retention of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense – all pragmatists – augur well for his ability to pursue his policy goals in an unpredictable world.