There are many tests of a president, but one of the most important is: Can he (or in the future she) abandon cherished programs when they simply do not work in the real world and adopt a policy that does?
Many great presidents have passed this test. Truman abandoned the defense drawdown after the North Korean invasion of South Korea and launched a massive defense buildup. Eisenhower abandoned his campaign policy of “rollback” in favor of continuing Truman’s policy of containment. Carter abandoned his general dovishness after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and launched a defense buildup. Reagan abandoned his outreach to Iran after it became public and his peacekeeping deployment in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks. George H.W. Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge to get a budget agreement that helped to eliminate the deficit. Bill Clinton abandoned his health-care plan to adopt a more centrist approach to governing. And George W. Bush abandoned his “small footprint” approach in Iraq to order the surge, which saved the country from collapse.
Now President Obama is facing this test in his foreign policy. Can he pivot away from failure?
As Fred Hiatt argues in the Washington Post, the collapse of Iraq invalidates the arguments of administration foreign-policy Minimalists led by Joe Biden who triumphed in internal councils over Engagers such as Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, and David Petraeus who favored a more activist approach, especially in the Middle East. In recent years Obama has consistently taken the advice of the Minimalists in Syria, Iraq, and Libya and arguably Afghanistan too. In Syria the U.S. has avoided involvement in the civil war; in Iraq the U.S. pulled out its troops; in Libya the U.S. did little to aid a new government after Gaddafi’s overthrow; and in Afghanistan the White House announced timetables for American withdrawal.
As Hiatt notes: “Unfortunately, disengagement turns out not to work. A drones-first policy has stoked anti-American fervor from Pakistan to Yemen. Libya is on the brink of civil war. Syria has become ‘the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation,’ as Mr. Obama’s U.N ambassador said. Now Iraq is disintegrating.”
The question is: Will Obama rethink his approach now that it has backfired? He has offered some hints about doing more to help the Syrian opposition and possibly even launching air strikes in Iraq, but there is no sign of a fundamental recalibration so far. Indeed, when he addressed Iraq last week, pretty much the first words out of the president’s mouth were that we are not going to send ground troops–indicating that he is still more fixated on staying out of conflicts than on defending American interests in a vital region.
Obama is one of our smartest presidents so he must know how badly things are going. But he is also one of our most arrogant presidents so it will be especially hard for him to admit that what he’s done before simply isn’t working. How will this conflict resolve itself? Impossible to say but the answer to that question will determine whether U.S. foreign policy becomes more successful–or at any rate less unsuccessful–in the remaining two and a half years of the Obama presidency.