Just over three years ago, acclaimed author and campaign adviser Samantha Power published a memo outlining the foreign policy Barack Obama would pursue if elected president. It was called “Conventional Washington versus the Change We Need.” Power’s argument—aimed straight at then-candidate Hillary Clinton—was that merely replacing George W. Bush with a Democrat would not truly change American foreign policy. It would not truly change American foreign policy because many of Bush’s policies had been supported by “the foreign-policy establishment of both parties,” which remained enthralled to a “bankrupt conventional wisdom.” Obama, she suggested, offered something different. As with his opposition to the Iraq War, he would offer “fresh strategic thinking” undeterred by charges that he was “weak, inexperienced, and even naive.” He represented “a break from a broken way of doing things.”
Obama hired, for the most part, foreign-policy versions of Elena Kagan: ambitious, talented people who have never publicly espoused a truly controversial opinion about anything.
Three years later, measured by the criteria Power laid out, Obama’s foreign policy has failed. The failure started soon after Obama’s election, when he assembled a foreign-policy team—led by Hillary Clinton herself—drawn from the very “foreign-policy establishment” that Power derided. The people Obama has installed in key positions are smart, earnest, and hard-working, but they lack exactly the quality that Power promised would define his foreign policy: a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, even when it entails political risks. To the contrary, the foreign-policy wonks who did stake out provocative positions—Robert Malley, for instance, who incurred the wrath of the “pro-Israel” establishment for questioning U.S. policy toward Hamas, or Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon, who incurred the wrath of the liberal blogosphere for supporting the Iraq surge—did not get jobs. The people who did are, for the most part, foreign-policy versions of Elena Kagan: ambitious, talented people who have never publicly espoused a truly controversial opinion about anything. The difference is that in foreign policy, unlike the Supreme Court, there is no lifetime tenure, so habits of conventionality and caution, once learned, rarely go away.
All this helps to explain the absence of memorable Obama speeches about America’s relationship to the world. From his 2002 speech at West Point junking containment and deterrence to his 2005 inaugural promising a campaign to end tyranny, George W. Bush laid out his foreign-policy views in sharp, bold strokes. Most of Obama’s speeches, by contrast, are so exquisitely nuanced that they stop just short of saying anything that anyone could really disagree with. The Bush administration was a festival of grand doctrines and controversial figures; the Obama administration, for all its brainpower, is intellectually bland.
That’s not to say Obama has no foreign-policy accomplishments. Using the financial crisis to replace the G-8 with the G-20 was a valuable shift in global architecture. America’s relationship with Russia has improved; Pakistan is getting more serious attention; U.S. diplomacy no longer needlessly alienates the world. But Power’s point was that true success would require fundamentally challenging the conventional wisdom in both parties, and that hasn’t happened.
• Tunku Varadarajan: Obama’s Vanishing Sex AppealConsider Obama’s stance toward Israel and the Palestinians. Since taking office, he has maintained the Bush administration’s policy of opposing any reconciliation between Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah government in the West Bank and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip. Politically, that’s understandable, since lifting the U.S. boycott of Hamas would produce a nasty fight at home. But because Obama has succumbed to the pre-existing conventional wisdom, he must now try to orchestrate a peace process between Israel and a Potemkin Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. Hamas, after all, not Fatah, won the last free and fair Palestinian election, and it might have won again had Abbas not canceled local balloting this summer.
Given his lack of democratic legitimacy, it is delusional to imagine that Abbas can carry out the brutally painful concessions a final peace deal would require. And it is delusional to imagine that Hamas will permit the success of a peace process meant to further marginalize it; indeed, it has already greeted the start of direct talks with terrorist attacks. “Fresh strategic thinking” would have meant U.S. support for a Palestinian unity government, including Hamas, which empowered Abbas to negotiate a deal with Israel that the Palestinians could then vote on in a national referendum. (While Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, its leaders have repeatedly said that if the Palestinian people vote for a two-state solution, they will accept the results). Not coincidentally, this is the path that Malley proposed. Instead, the Obama administration is launching a peace process with the same structural deficiencies that plagued the one launched by Condoleezza Rice near the end of the Bush administration. It is doing exactly what Power promised it would not: taking the safer, more familiar approach, even though it has already failed.
On Afghanistan, the story is much the same. For almost nine years now, the Afghan War has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, even as the rationale for fighting it has eroded. By last summer, when Obama launched his Afghan policy review, it was clear that Hamid Karzai’s government could not be the credible, vigorous local partner that, according to counterinsurgency theory, America needs to vanquish the Taliban. And it was clear that the global al Qaeda threat, which has declined substantially as a result of nine years of global pressure, now emanates less from Afghanistan than from the frontier regions of Pakistan. Yet despite this, according to White House leaks, beginning to immediately withdraw troops from Afghanistan was never an option; the debate was over how much to increase them. In other words, Obama’s Afghan deliberations, for all their supposed analytical rigor, operated within the same narrow parameters that would likely have defined Afghan policy under President Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, President John McCain. When he finally unveiled his Afghan policy last December, Obama did insist that he would begin withdrawing troops next summer. But as soon as he did, military leaders began contradicting him. And if a genuine withdrawal was politically unthinkable last summer, it is hard to see how it will be more thinkable next summer, assuming the military still vociferously objects, which it almost certainly will.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Obama’s plight. In both Israel/Palestine and Afghanistan, he inherited a deteriorating situation on the ground, and a political debate in Washington that dramatically constrains his ability to respond. But the promise of the Obama campaign was that the old constraints would no longer apply, that policymakers would have the courage and creativity to respond in fundamentally different ways.
It’s a bit like the situation John F. Kennedy inherited in 1961. As a thoughtful, sophisticated man, he could see that the Cold War discourse he had inherited—which was premised on a unified communist threat—bore little resemblance to reality, now that the USSR and China were at each other’s throat. Yet for all his promises to “think anew,” he never effectively challenged the politically comfortable assumptions that imprisoned his foreign policy. And as a result, he continued down the path toward war in Vietnam. I hope I’m proven wrong, but right now it’s easy to imagine historians saying of Obama what they sometimes said of Kennedy: that he was smarter than he was brave.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris . Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.