I’ve wrote several times here that Obama’s foreign policy scares me, and Robert D. Kaplan said something along the same lines on several occasions. And as a safe Democratic state votes for a Republican in the election to replace the late Senator Ted Kennedy, pundits are buzzing as to what this means with regard to health care and the economy. Yet a few people are looking at foreign policy, and the conclusion by Walter Russel Mead, writing the cover story in FP, is that Obama must fix his split personality.
Like Carter in the 1970s, Obama comes from the old-fashioned Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic Party, and the strategic goal of his foreign policy is to reduce America’s costs and risks overseas by limiting U.S. commitments wherever possible. He’s a believer in the notion that the United States can best spread democracy and support peace by becoming an example of democracy at home and moderation abroad. More than this, Jeffersonians such as Obama think oversize commitments abroad undermine American democracy at home. Large military budgets divert resources from pressing domestic needs; close association with corrupt and tyrannical foreign regimes involves the United States in dirty and cynical alliances; the swelling national-security state threatens civil liberties and leads to powerful pro-war, pro-engagement lobbies among corporations nourished on grossly swollen federal defense budgets.
While Bush argued that the only possible response to the 9/11 attacks was to deepen America’s military and political commitments in the Middle East, Obama initially sought to enhance America’s security by reducing those commitments and toning down aspects of U.S. Middle East policy, such as support for Israel, that foment hostility and suspicion in the region. He seeks to pull U.S. power back from the borderlands of Russia, reducing the risk of conflict with Moscow. In Latin America, he has so far behaved with scrupulous caution and, clearly, is hoping to normalize relations with Cuba while avoiding collisions with the “Bolivarian” states of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
As Obama is pledging to make the world a more peaceful, safer place and being friends with everyone, it’s worth remembering that Carter came into the White House promising to end the Cold War. Four years later, he was supporting the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, increasing the defense budget, and laying the groundwork for an expanded U.S. presence in the Middle East.