By striking dramatic deals with Cuba and Iran, President Obama has asserted that diplomatic compromise serves American interests better than confrontation. His predecessor did not believe this. Nor will his successor. Our next president will be more interventionist, more likely to threaten and use military force, and less eager to negotiate.
America’s enthusiasm for waging foreign wars swings back and forth, like a pendulum. One generation is seized with fervor for fighting evil around the world. When these interventions fail or trigger “blowback,” the next generation becomes more cautious. This pendulum has been swinging for more than a century. We are now near the end of one pendulum swing.
Obama has expanded drone warfare and involved the United States dangerously in Yemen, but on other occasions he has bravely resisted pressure for military action. He brought most American troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Later he rejected irresponsible calls to promote war in Georgia and Ukraine and to arm factions in Syria’s civil war.
Then Obama moved on to bigger game. His spectacular reconciliation with Cuba and Iran will stand as his greatest foreign policy achievement. No president since Nixon has so successfully rearranged pieces on the global chessboard.
When Obama assumed the presidency six years ago, he still embraced the presumption that military power can decisively advance American interests around the world. This is an article of faith in Washington. Obama has pinpointed the moment he stopped believing it.
In 2011 his advisors were deeply divided over whether to plunge the United States into war against the Khadafy regime in Libya. He finally sided with the interventionists, and ordered American fighter jets into action. That led to Khadafy’s overthrow and death, but it also turned Libya into a chaotic haven for terrorists. Obama says this taught him “a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day . . . a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene militarily? Do we have an answer the day after?”
Libya’s collapse showed Obama that violent intervention in distant lands can lead to unforeseen disasters. Iraq taught the same lesson. Yet our next president will resist this truth. Beginning in January 2017, American foreign policy will drift closer to the snarling, ready-to-fight, “gunslinger nation” end of the pendulum.
“Our foreign policy is detente, which I’m pretty sure is French for surrender,” Senator Ted Cruz cracked a few months ago. That crystallized the world view of Republican presidential candidates. They compete to show belligerence and contempt for diplomacy.
Rand Paul wants the United Nations to “dissolve” because he doesn’t like the way “two-bit Third World countries with no freedom attack us and complain about the United States.” Marco Rubio favors sanctioning Cuba indefinitely. Scott Walker says facing down labor unions in Wisconsin equips him to deal with America’s enemies in the Middle East because “if I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.” Jeb Bush’s list of foreign policy advisors is thick with enablers of the Iraq war. Chris Christie vows intervention so that “freedom is not only protected where it is, but is pushed forward.” All these candidates are in various degrees of apoplexy over Obama’s overture to Iran.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has the benefit of diplomatic experience but is also a reflexive interventionist. She is a former Goldwater Girl who still sees the world through a Cold War lens. Her dogged support for the invasion of Iraq defines her approach to foreign policy. She was among those who urged Obama to order the disastrous bombing of Libya — and although he has expressed regrets, she never has. Like the Republican candidates, she caters to pro-Israel donors who promote US intervention in the Middle East while dangling campaign contributions.
This month, after shaking hands with President Raul Castro of Cuba, Obama showed with a few well-chosen words how much the world has taught him. “So often,” he observed, “when we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counter-productive, it backfires.” Our next president will not understand that. He or she will pull the pendulum back toward interventionism and foreign wars. We will look back on Obama longingly.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.
• Nicholas Burns: Obama’s daunting new year
• Niall Ferguson: Obama can’t govern? Who knew?
• Stephen Kinzer: The world of threats to the US is an illusion
• Neal Gabler: Obama’s legacy will be like Truman’s
• The Internationalist: Foreign policy wins Obama could still pull off
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Hillary Clinton’s first name.