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Explaining Foreign Policy Failures

Jackson Diehl thinks Obama’s foreign policy is badly out of date. Obama is frantic to conclude an old-style nuclear arms treaty while the ”threat of nuclear weapons now comes from rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Syria, and maybe from terrorist organizations.” He’s obsessed over Israeli settlements, which leads to bizarre dealmaking efforts (“a campaign that even Palestinian and Arab leaders have watched with bafflement”), while the real threat to peace and stability in the region is the rise of the Iranian axis and a nuclear-armed, revolutionary Islamic state.

Why is Obama fixated on issues that were in vogue when he was a college student and oblivious or disinterested in the world as we find it in 2010? One can argue that this is simply a function of leftist ideology — a worldview frozen in time and sealed off from reality. In that conception, our enemies are misunderstood, America’s problems are largely of its own making, and we’d be better off re-creating the U.S. in the image of Western Europe than in pushing despotic regimes to democratize.

Then there is the rudderless-ship explanation. As Diehl observes: “this administration is notable for its lack of grand strategy — or strategists. Its top foreign-policy makers are a former senator, a Washington lawyer and a former Senate staffer. There is no Henry Kissinger, no Zbigniew Brzezinski, no Condoleezza Rice; no foreign policy scholar.” We’ve seen the same in the economic realm — there is no one who understands free markets, has experience as an entrepreneur, or questions the class warfare, anti-business stance that has characterized the first two years of Obama’s term. In short, the administration is in over its head in a very complex and dangerous world.

And then there is the possibility that there is a method, however inept, to the Obama foreign policy approach. It is the path of least resistance. We want to make progress with the Russians, so we  give them what they want. The Palestinians harp on settlements, so we become their agent. Iran isn’t amenable to sanctions or engagement, but we’d better make sure no one gets the idea that we are headed for a military confrontation. The Chinese don’t want to talk about human rights, so we don’t. It’s always easier to beat up on small allies than to stand up to intransigent bullies.

None of these explanations is entirely satisfying or mutually exclusive. Obama’s foreign policy is made all the more curious by the fact that sometimes he gets it right. Obama, however reluctantly, has followed the Bush approach in Iraq and attempted to duplicate it in Afghanistan. In these areas he’s departed from the leftist playbook and to a large extent followed the advice of the one truly expert national security guru he has: Gen. David Petraeus. So go figure.

Perhaps it comes down to this: only when faced with the prospect of a massive loss of American credibility (e.g., a defeat in Afghanistan), a severe domestic backlash (American Jews’ falling out with him), or resolute opposition (from Israel on Jerusalem) does Obama do what is smart and productive for American interests. In other words, only when exhausting all other opportunities and trying every which way to force his ideologically driven preferences does he stumble upon a reasonable outcome. This, if true, contains a powerful lesson for Israel, for Obama’s domestic critics, and for our other allies: hang tough, be clear about the Obama administration’s errors, and don’t blink. Chances are, he will instead.