The Education of Barack Obama, Foreign Policy Edition

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New Republic owner Chris Hughes asks President Obama about how he “personally, morally” wrestles with the ongoing violence in Syria:

What I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity. And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.

Dan Drezner argues that this passage demonstrates that, for Obama, “national interest and security trumps liberal values every day of the week and twice on Sundays.”

I don’t read it that way at all. Rather, I think that over the past four years Obama has deeply internalized the practical limitations of American power. As Dan himself puts it a few paragraphs later, Obama’s foreign policy views display an “increasing risk aversion to the use of force as a tool of regime change.” I’d argue that this doesn’t suggest so much a surrender of liberal values as it does simple common sense of the type we rarely see on either right or left.

I continue to be a bit gobsmacked about how little we seem to have learned from the past decade. The 2008 economic crash seems to have had close to no impact on how we view and regulate the financial system, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had close to no impact on how we view interventionism. Conservatives still want us to go to war against every bad guy who’s ever sneered at us, and liberals still want us to intervene in every humanitarian crisis that springs up.

Obama seems to understand that this framework is obsolete. No matter what motivates you—realpolitik, humanitarianism, nationalism, whatever—interventionism doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t work. And the lesson of the past decade, at the very least, is that interventionism is really, really hard to do well, even if your bar for “well” is really, really low.

The first question for any kind of action in any sphere of human behavior is, will it work? If the answer is yes, then you can move on to arguments about when, whether, and what kind of action might be appropriate. But if the answer is no, all those arguments are moot. In the case of U.S. military interventions, the answer might not quite be an unqualified no, but it sure seems to be pretty damn close. This makes the rest of the argument futile.

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