Will Obama’s Foreign Policy Finally Emerge?

Given the poisonous partisanship of modern Washington, it was hard to know what President Obama would do on foreign policy if he weren’t scared about the Democrats losing the next election. Now that excuse is gone and Obama has two years to act, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Amid the usual post-election barrages of commentary about what messages the election result supposedly carries and how elected leaders ought to change their behavior in response, it is difficult to find any issue-specific messages about U.S. foreign policy in this week’s result.

As Michael Cohen points out, the available evidence from polls, including exit polls, is that foreign policy issues did not play a significant role in the outcome. It is true, as Gordon Adams observes, that a “witches’ brew, fired up by Republican candidates,” of fears did play a role, fear of getting attacked by an ISIS terrorist, of catching Ebola, and of being swamped by immigrants flooding across the southern border. But as far as presidential policy is concerned these are not matters that were the making of the current president or are translatable into changes of course in his policies.

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in the Oval Office on March 19, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in the Oval Office on March 19, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


The one thing about Barack Obama that is different now that the election is over is, of course, that not only will he never be running for anything again but also no one else will be running for anything that will change the make-up of the U.S. Congress during his presidency.

Some suggest that he still needs to be concerned about affecting the prospects for whoever will be his party’s candidate for president in 2016, but that does not really need to be a constraint. Visible distance between Mr. Obama and the Democratic presidential candidate will not necessarily hurt the latter and might even help.

So now, more than ever, the President should think and act strictly and narrowly according to what is in his best judgment in the best interest of the nation while excluding from his calculations what is popular or politic. In practice this advice will frequently conflict with another common theme of post-election commentary, which is that the President needs to try more than ever to reach across the party divide to work with the opposition, now that the opposition has won big.

The first type of advice should take precedence because we (and Mr. Obama) already have enough experience to know that the second type of advice will in the current circumstances yield few results. The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank aptly summarized the political dynamics involved by observing that “Republicans didn’t run on an agenda other than antipathy to all things Obama” and that “it was enough, electorally, for Republicans to say they were against whatever President Obama was for.”

An optimistic view is that having majority status in both houses of Congress will impart a greater sense of ownership of policy and an associated sense of responsibility that has hitherto been lacking, but it is unrealistic to think that the target of the unrelenting antipathy that made for a winning electoral strategy is likely suddenly to be perceived instead as a partner in policymaking.

Mitch McConnell, the senior senator from Kentucky who is in line to become Senate majority leader, declared during Mr. Obama’s first term that the number one goal of himself and his party colleagues in Congress was not to improve the state of the economy, to enhance the health and welfare of Americans, to strengthen the standing of the United States in the world, or to do anything else to further the national interest; according to the senator their number one goal was instead to deny President Obama a second term.

They failed in that goal but instead did what was the nearest thing to it, which was, in Gordon Adams’s words, to mount a campaign “to prevent the president from achieving any of his agenda, from health care to climate change to immigration.” Do not expect such habits to change now that a blocking minority in the Senate has become a majority.

In considering what a hypothetical president who is perfectly tuned to what is good for the national interest and not necessarily good politics ought to be concentrating on in foreign policy over the next two years, one should think first in terms of long-term trends and future challenges that are not fashionable fears of the moment such as ISIS, Ebola, or those scruffy immigrants.

Climate change certainly deserves to be at or near the top of any such list, but also high on the list should be more of that pivoting to East Asia that so far has been more of a talked-about concept than a thorough addressing of America’s future relations with China.

Middle Eastern problems will necessarily continue to limit the amount of pivoting, and within the Middle East the issues deserving priority include one to which Mr. Obama admirably has already devoted considerable political capital, conclusion of an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, and one to which he gave one shot and then pretty much gave up: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These two issues could appropriately be treated as more linked than they usually are treated, given the motivations of the Israeli government in opposing any agreement with Iran and given how that government accounts for such a large part of the overall opposition to an agreement.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government ought to be called explicitly to account for the phoniness of its opposition to an agreement, in a way that the United States has not explicitly done. In fact, just about anything having to do with Israel, given the extraordinary role Israel-related issues play in American politics, constitutes a prime area in which our hypothetical president would behave differently from real American politicians.

If Barack Obama is to become more like that hypothetical president who is selflessly guided by a dispassionate sense of the national interest rather than by politics, he will face a tough test in living up to a standard that he has talked about himself: not doing stupid stuff.

The test is tough because not doing certain things detrimental to the national interest, as distinct from positively doing things that would further that interest, may run up not only against what is currently politically popular but also against the sorts of considerations that make for a favorably regarded legacy.

History tends to treat presidents who accomplish positive and significant things more favorably than it treats presidents whose chief contributions to the Republic were to resist pressures to do damaging things. Perhaps the closest thing to an exception was Dwight Eisenhower, who served the Republic very well not only through his positive accomplishments but also by avoiding major mistakes even when friends and allies (e.g., Suez 1956) were doing stupid stuff.

If Mr. Obama is to become more like the hypothetical president, he should have begun showing signs of that after his own re-election in 2012. Some believe they see some such signs, but the signs are not clear. The President’s policy toward ISIS, for example, looks to a large extent to be a bending to popular will and emotions. But he still has two more years to demonstrate otherwise.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

18 comments for “Will Obama’s Foreign Policy Finally Emerge?

  1. george e green
    November 9, 2014 at 21:18

    I was shocked to read the statement near the conclusion of PAUL PILLAR’S Nov7 article re Obama’s foreign policy. He writes “Dwight Eisenhower … avoiding major mistakes” – has Pillar erased the coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and what we have experienced as results ?

    • Abe
      November 11, 2014 at 18:29

      In July 1953, Eisenhower approved Operation AJAX, the coup d’etat in Iran, organized by the CIA along with the United Kingdom’s MI6.

      In August 1953, Eisenhower approved Operation PBSUCCESS, the coup d’etat in Guatemala, again organized by the CIA.

      According to journalist Stephen Kinzer, “the CIA became a central part of the American foreign policy apparatus, and covert action came to be regarded as a cheap and effective way to shape the course of world events.”

      So those were Eisenhower’s non-mistakes.

      In his analyses of current conflicts, ex-CIA analyst Pillar consistently neglects to mention the extent of CIA involvement.

  2. November 9, 2014 at 14:07

    One bit of Good News Obama isn’t cornered by Cuban Government hating Cuban American politicians anymore. The Lame Duck Congress is an excellent time to not only end the Embargo of Cuba but as soon as Ebola enters the tribal areas of Pakistan or even sooner to instead of spending 600 Billion to fight Ebola give 6 million to Cuba to accomplish even more than US’s billions would.

    PS China’s relations to Pakistan is often compared to US’s relations with Israel, so only Cubac could stop Ebola from destroying part of Pakistan and I guess complicate it for wounded US soldiers and complicate receiving mail back from Afghanistan.

    Please Consortium News get back to discussing Cuba and stop ignoring Ebola.

  3. onno
    November 9, 2014 at 08:47

    What do you expect from a college teacher who never had to make crucial decisions? All he does is talk without ANY actions, he is scared to make a decision take risks. He is at the wrong place and far over his head. But as ego-maniac he likes the perks and attention.

    America wake up before its too late, this president is taking this country down. A weak leader surrounds himself with incompetence and this shows in his domestic and foreign policy. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are the proof they break all Mileage Plus records and have not accomplished anything except for making this planet a violent and a war zone in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

    Regretfully an incompetent president cannot be impeached!!! Is this for racial reasons?

  4. Bob
    November 8, 2014 at 23:46

    Hey come on enough with these wishful thinking stories. Obama backstabbed the nation and the fantasy he sold will never surface. The sooner we all accept that and concentrate on 2016 WITHOUT the DNC, the better.

  5. November 8, 2014 at 22:30

    What you think about Barack Obama’s presidency depends a lot on who you believe his constituency is. If you listen to his words, he’s a failed progressive. But if you look at his actions, he has achieved monumental accomplishments for the 1 %.

    * He shepherded legislation through Congresss forcing the taxpayers and their great-great-grandchildren to pay for the banksters mistakes and kept the banksters out of prison.
    * He greased the wheels of the U.S. armaments and materiel industry by continuing, starting more wars than any prior president, and protected DoD from enormous spending cuts despite the collapse of the national economy.
    * He got the insurance industry’s “Obamacare” wet dream passed by Congress.
    * He shredded government transparency, enabling even more oligarch control of government without public oversight.
    * He’s successfully protected his administration’s predecessors from prosecution for war crimes.
    * His Justice Department has not filed an antitrust action against a single multinational company, enabling massive economic consolidation of private ownership that was previously in the middle class’s hands.
    * He has successfully downsized the economic middle class while holding the fiscal line on programs benefitting the lower class.
    * He successfully parlayed the politics of fear gambit into far tighter social control for all middle class and lower class Americans via restrictions on liberties and massive surveillance.
    * He successfully replaced the crime of driving while black with driving while Muslim.
    * All the while he maintained the illusion in the minds of our nation’s progressives that he is a closet liberal.

    View him through the interests of his real constituency and he’s been a very successful president.

  6. WG
    November 8, 2014 at 11:29

    1500 more troops to Iraq! I’m sure everyone at Consortiumnews is shocked. Maybe after the next election you’ll realize it doesn’t matter who’s president, the war will continue anyway.

  7. Abe
    November 7, 2014 at 21:05

    “The real tragedy of Obama is that he had a popular mandate to institute real change. Obama served the real centers of corporate power from the beginning, rather than the people who elected him.”
    Chris Hedges – Wages of Rebellion

    • Eddie
      November 8, 2014 at 12:54

      Exactly! He came ‘right out of the box’ in Jan 2009 with that COMPROMISING talk, and then acted surprised and semi-shocked when the Republicans never once cooperated – – – when there was the obvious example of Bill Clinton’s harassment by the same offenders. And that was when he had a majority in both legislative houses, but then all we heard was “we don’t have a veto-proof majority”! Huh? WTF did that have to do with anything!!?? Well, now he doesn’t have ANY majorities, so what’ll he use as his excuse, meme this time…?

  8. F. G. Sanford
    November 7, 2014 at 14:41

    His foreign policy has already been clearly and succinctly stated. And his actions have been decisively consistent in the furtherance of those policy goals. It began with an international coalition to achieve regime change in a stable country with little thought to the consequences of removing the distasteful but at least secular Gaddafi. This was followed by aid to organizations like the “Free Syrian Army” and the “Syrian National Coalition”, who staged a massacre using children from Ballouta, and passed the pictures off as a sarin gas attack in Ghouta. War was narrowly averted when Russia intervened, exposing the fraud. Then, there was the neo-Nazi coup d’etat engineered in Ukraine resulting in a campaign of genocidal retribution against an ethnic minority. In Syria, armed militias effectively trained and armed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and aided by weapons and jihadis flowing from destabilized Libya are now committing horrendous atrocities. In order to stem this tide of blowback, we have resorted to bombing Syrian infrastructure like granaries, power stations and refineries. In Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, civilian casualties continue to mount from drone strikes, increasing the likelihood of continued radicalization. In Israel, the opposition to the peace process is not at all “phony”. Israel has no intention of ever permitting any kind of Palestinian sovereignty or autonomy, and in fact blatantly escalates its genocidal expansion each time it is criticized. The “chickenshit” remark, though appropriate, caused the demolition of three more Palestinian homes and the authorization for 500 more squatter apartments.

    So, the foreign policy has been clearly enunciated, and it isn’t “Don’t do stupid stuff”. The policy is, in his own words, “LIPSTICK ON A PIG”. Now that we’ve got Joni “Hog’s Balls” Ernst in the Senate and a CIA operative on the oversight committee, things are bound to improve. If Joni can castrate a pig, putting on lipstick will be a cakewalk. Things can only get better from here!

    • Scaevola
      November 7, 2014 at 19:53

      Hear! Hear! Could not have said it better myself.

  9. Abe
    November 7, 2014 at 12:51

    What the whole planet already knows is that the new slimy show premiering on Capitol Hill on January 2015 has a top priority: the Republicans will do everything in their power to make the lame duck cry for mercy over and over again. So what will this mean in terms of Obama’s self-styled “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” foreign policy doctrine, which that 2016 juggernaut known as “The Hillarator” has already derided as a “non-organizational principle”? Just extra layers of cosmic stupidity, or something more substantial?

    Lame-duck Obama’s brave new world
    By Pepe Escobar

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 7, 2014 at 14:46

      Abe, I think America has just taken a right turn, and there’s no turning back. Obama maybe the next Clinton, as I see it. What do you think?
      Joe Tedesky

      • Monika Gorska
        November 7, 2014 at 21:22

        This remark doesn’t really help this website (not to mention your own reputation). Mind the comment rules, please

        • Joe Tedesky
          November 7, 2014 at 22:45

          What remark?

    • Abe
      November 7, 2014 at 21:11

      I think Obama was brought in primarily to deflect popular uprising in the United Stares and abroad.

      • November 8, 2014 at 07:49

        I couln’t agree with you more Abe on this. You are 100% correct, Obama was brought in primarily to deflect popular uprising in the United Stares and abroad against Bush’s activities. They wanted a Bush with a black face, someone who would carry Bush’s programme without an outcry and resistance that was building up against Bush. The military industry wanted someone who would be more conservative more rightwing than the neocons of the Republicans without the distraction of resistance. They used Obama to disarm the popular resistance against the US imperialist agenda.

  10. Abe
    November 7, 2014 at 12:27

    Obama’s 2014 post-midterm refresher screening to clarify his agenda for the home stretch:
    “Next we bomb Damascus.”
    “You got it…”

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