When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, one of his selling points was the promise of a more modest foreign policy than that of his predecessor. And when Obama won re-election 16 months ago, he renewed that pledge.
Drone strikes against al-Qaida would continue, and Navy visits to the South China Sea would increase, but the U.S. footprint around the world was being downsized.
It’s not quite fair to accuse Obama of direct responsibility for Vladimir Putin’s occupation of Crimea, as Sen. John McCain. R-Ariz., and other hawkish critics have. After all, Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, when George W. Bush was president, and no one accused Bush of excessive diffidence in defending American interests.
But it’s still worth asking: Has Obama’s downsizing of U.S. foreign policy gone too far?
Stephen Sestanovich, a former State Department official under both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, has addressed the issue in a useful new book, “Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama.”
On foreign policy, Sestanovich writes, the United States tends to swing between two kinds of presidents, “maximalists” and “retrenchers.” The maximalists – think Reagan and George W. Bush – use U.S. power, including military power, assertively. They invade other countries. But along the way, they inevitably make mistakes, and often leave the public financially exhausted and war-weary.
That opens the way for the election of a retrencher (think Dwight D. Eisenhower after Harry Truman or George H.W. Bush after Reagan). They seek fewer and more limited military adventures. They cut defense budgets. They talk about engagement and diplomacy, not confrontation.
Like all broad categorizations, of course, there are exceptions. For one thing, minimalist presidents aren’t necessarily pacifists. George H.W. Bush fought a land war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (though stopped short of marching to Baghdad, as his maximalist son did). Obama bombed Libya and escalated the U.S. drone war against al-Qaida and its allies, even as he has stuck to his deadlines for withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the problem with retrenchers, Sestanovich writes, is that like maximalists, they sometimes overdo it. They back away from confrontation one time too many. They talk so much about reducing the U.S. footprint around the world that allies worry about abandonment and enemies may be emboldened.
All that minimalism creates a problem, Sestanovich warns: A policy based on self-restraint and fewer troops overseas can make it harder to fashion a quick, effective response when something goes wrong.
Putin’s grab for Crimea would present challenges to maximalist presidents and retrenchers alike. Russia considers the territory its own and has wanted it back since the Soviet Union collapsed. European countries are hesitant to move too fast because sanctions could hurt them as well as Russia. And there’s no military option, something even Obama’s most hawkish critics concede.
For all those reasons, Ukraine is not the ideal place for Obama to begin correcting what he says is the mistaken idea that the U.S. is withdrawing from the world. But he doesn’t have much choice. If the president wants to avoid cementing the image of the United States as a weakened superpower, he needs to push back there. To paraphrase his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, this is a crisis that should not go to waste.