obama as state builder, not foreign policy leader

The essence of Obama is that he’s a master of rules, possesses extreme patience, and is all about big picture thinking. If you look at his greatest moments, they stem from these traits. Obama’s first electoral victory, for Illinois State Senate, came from eliminating Alice Palmer by showing she didn’t have enough valid signatures. Later, he bumped Hillary through an extremely complex strategy that focused on peeling off enough delegates so that he didn’t need need the constituencies that would be tied to the Clintons, such as older women and white Southern Democrats. This weekend, health care legislation passed through an even more complicated strategy that involved neutralizing insurance companies, limiting Democratic defectors, and understanding the more arcane Congressional rules. The result? The fist health care legislation to make it out of committee in decades, and the first major social reform since the 1960s.

These traits have proven time and time again to be  of extreme importance. They will make Obama one of the most consequential presidents. They will allow him to continue to expand the American welfare state and pick up on the work of the Johnson, and to some extent, the Nixon administrations.

However, I do have a suspicion that the same traits won’t be as effective in foreign policy issues. Obama recognizes that some people can’t be moved and then he devises a way around them using his institutional  mastery. This is way harder to do foreign policy. Example: closing the Guantanamo prison. In principle, this should be easy. As commander in chief, he could, through executive order, demand a review of the prison and then administration officials would then come up with a plan to move prisoners to other locations. And this is exactly the administration’s approach.

The problem? Once you move someone to American soil, they have legal rights, which triggers trials and political problem. One plan to build a maximum security prison in Illinois to house prisoners got shot down, which might be the first state to ever reject a prison in modern times. You can’t drop them back where they belong – their native government isn’t hot to accept someone who is either a genuine threat, or who might have been radicalized because they were in prison. At best, a few prisoners have been sent to various nations, such as Palau and Bermuda, often in secrecy or cover of darkness.

The point that I am trying to make is that foreign policy is not an arena with well defined rules that can be mastered and deployed against enemies.  The international system is the opposite, it’s been called a global anarchy. States do what they can get away with and global institutions are of limited help. If you have a hunch that there’s enough frustration with the current party leader, you can devise a primary strategy to pull these folks together and limit the opposition. In contrast, there are no rules in foreign affairs, just balances of power. Guantanamo remains open because Obama can’t, or won’t, make a person’s right to a trial disappear, nor has he been able to get many states to accept these prisoners. You can’t “work around” the problem. You have to either force the issue or persuade people. A number of commentators have come to a similar conclusion in Middle east policy. His policy appears disjointed and reactive, probably because their isn’t a concrete goal that can be achieved nor a clear institutional framework to be manipulated.

This isn’t to claim that Obama will be a foreign policy disaster. Quite the contrary. He doesn’t appear eager to start wars, intentionally anger allies, or abandon global institutions just to show his toughness. By itself, not making things worse is a phenomenal improvement over his predecessor. There’s a lot to be said for that. Instead, what I am claiming is that the brilliant legislative moments of this weekend emerge from a specific way of doing politics that doesn’t translate well into international relations.

Written by fabiorojas

March 23, 2010 at 5:12 am

5 Responses

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  1. Good points. I would like to add that President Obama thinks that the war will just wind down and go away when we leave Iraq and Afghanistan. And politically what a good thing! He wants all U.S. forces out of both Iraq and Afghanistan prior to the beginning of the presidental election cycle in 2012. After all, he could claim (Correctly, in a limited way) that he ended both wars before his first term ended.

    The problem is, the fundamental issues behind the war are still unresolved. This war is nowhere near being over. Our enemies are already beginning to re-deploy. The war will become quiet. This is only the calm before the storm. It may take a few years, but this war is comming back to us.


    Joe Six-Pack

    March 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm

  2. […] obama as state builder, not foreign policy leader A very intuitive take on it. Obama doesn’t start wars… but he makes us look weak. I have to agree. […]


  3. Generally, in any organization, the president is an empty suit who represents others. In a stable structure, the sum of the forces is zero. Barack Obama is not the only President who was made by others.

    Leaders are interesting subjects of study: Bill Gates, Lee Iococca; … Alexander the Great …; … but not everyone who sits on the throne built the kingdom.

    What did Barack Obama actually _do_ before achieving the highest office in America, if not the world? Did he build anything, create anything?

    Barack Obama is only what a dozen representatives of special interests agreed on for the range of one moment lasting four years.


    Michael E. Marotta

    March 24, 2010 at 10:24 am

  4. Yes i do think so, i think the roblem is about the fundamental issues behind th war that are still unsolved. Obama had homework…



    March 24, 2010 at 2:26 pm

  5. This was extremely well put. Hat-tip!


    Brian Pitt

    March 24, 2010 at 5:10 pm

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