Stephen Walt: “Coming Up Empty”
Stephen Walt, responding to Daniel Drezner’s praise of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, lists ten reasons why Obama’s foreign policy may not be considered a success in a piece titled “Coming Up Empty”. Walt makes some legitimate criticisms – all administrations inevitably fail in certain aspects of foreign policy – but he sometimes comes across as a contrarian in search of a criticism. Take, for instance, Walt on Libya:
Nobody is mourning Muammar al-Qaddafi’s ouster or his death, and Americans can be pleased that this feat was accomplished without the loss of a single American life. But didn’t the “Mission Accomplished” moment in 2003 in Iraq teach us about the dangers of declaring victory prematurely? We can all hope that the Libyan revolution fulfills its idealistic hopes and avoids the various pitfalls that lie ahead, but it is way too early to start bragging about it, or declaring it the model for future interventions. And if Libya does go south, enthusiasm for the “Obama Doctrine” will fade faster than watercolors in the Libyan sun.
Walt is certainly correct here – there is a lot that can go wrong in Libya in the coming months and years, and Obama’s decision will likely face greater scrutiny if it does. But what is Walt’s counter-argument? The alternative for the administration was not “call off the Libyan rebellion” or “intervene in a way with no post-Qaddafi consequences.” They could have let our NATO allies launch an intervention with less air power and less resources. They could have done nothing and allowed the Qaddafi regime to crush the rebellion.
The administration has been boxed in by criticisms on all sides – criticized for intervening in Libya, criticized for not intervening in Libya fast enough, criticized for not intervening in Syria, criticized for supporting the revolution in Egypt, criticized for not doing enough to aid the revolution in Egypt, and so on. When assessing the success or failure of the mission in Libya – and it is still too earlier to tell what the long-term implications will be – it is important to recognize that the mission managed to avoid the pitfalls of a military commitment a la Iraq or Afghanistan as well as the potential for the United States standing by as a dictatorial regime massacres its own citizens. Qaddafi was certainly “worse” than Mubarak from a U.S. standpoint (he did, after all, have American blood on his hands), and doing nothing to prevent his crack down on the protests would have done further damage to the United States’ image. The Clinton adminstration’s failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide was not a permanent shift towards a more cautious, less interventionist foreign policy, after all – it made them more determined to prevent such a massacre from happening again. The utilization of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in Libya stems directly from the framework established in the wake of the international community’s lack of nerve in Rwanda (itself a result of the nightmare in Mogadishu – these things get complicated). Walt worries about what might happen if Libya “does go south,” but he doesn’t speculate on what would have happened if Obama chose not to get involved in Libya and things “went south” (opinions may differ, but I worry more about the “south” in the latter case more than the former).
Another reason Walt suggest Obama’s foreign policy might not be a success is “the world economy”:
Not only has Obama failed to get the U.S. economy going again, but the United States has done little to help the rest of the world get out of its present doldrums. There has been little progress in promoting trade liberalization, and European leaders have steadfastly ignored U.S. advice on how to deal with their own fiscal and financial problems. Bilateral trade deals such as the recent pact with South Korea are useful for cementing political ties, but will have modest economic impact. Obama hardly deserves all the blame here, but there’s also precious little for which he can take credit.
The first sentence is enough to drive me crazy. The idea that the president alone is responsible for getting the U.S. economy “going again” is horrific. A Harvard professor like Walt should know better than to peddle misleading memes like this. Walt’s criticism of Obama’s handling of “the world economy” (which the President of the United States is somehow responsible for) boils down to “little progress in trade liberalization” (though he does note that Obama has furthered bilateral trade deals!) and failing to get European leaders to follow his advice (and Walt offers no criticism of the U.S. advice). Europe’s problem is, as Wolfgang Munchau points out, is that it has attempted a monetary union without a political union. It is unclear what Barack Obama could have done to alter this beyond offering Europe what Walt apparently considers prudent advice on handling their own fiscal and financial problems. If the president some how had control over the decision-making of the leaders of the European Union or the European Central Bank, he would certainly deserve criticism for his handling of the world economy. As it stands, however, Walt would rather lob criticisms than offer a plausible alternative.
Walt also criticizes Obama on the issue of climate change:
This was a major item in Obama’s 2008 campaign, and he made a big show of attending the Copenhagen summit during his first year. But then he couldn’t get an energy bill passed, and the whole issue — on which the future course of civilization may depend — has dropped off the radar screen almost entirely. Not good news if you happen to live near the coast.
Take it up with Congress, Stephen. This could, I suppose be labeled a domestic policy failure of the administration – cap-and-trade was a major priority of the administration. But this deflects blame from where it ought to be aimed: Congress, specifically the Senate, specifically Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Senate. Labeling failures of the legislative branch as failures of the executive branch just confuses things. It would be like blaming the September collapse of the Red Sox on Jacoby Ellsbury. He was leading the team, and the team blew it, so it must have been his fault. That, of course, would be letting the real culprits off the hook. Let’s say the Red Sox responding to missing the postseason by releasing Ellsbury. Not only would they be depriving themselves of their best performer, but they would be leaving themselves incapable of addressing the structural problems that needed to be addressed in order for the team to improve.
On the issue of Libya, Walt blames the president for post-rebellion problems which have not yet actually occurred. At least he correctly labels this a foreign policy issue. He talks of Obama’s failure to lift up the domestic economy without using the words “Congress” or “Federal Reserve.” He labels the failures of the European economic union as a failure of administration policy. He labels the failure of Congress to pass an energy bill as a failure of the president alone (and a “foreign policy” failure, no less). In seeking to come up with reasons to criticize Obama without plausible alternative suggestions, it’s Walt who comes up empty.