Barack Obama took office with a pretty high sense of his place in history. Beyond the indisputable significance of his being the first black U.S. president, Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in 2008 by hoping aloud that his election would be looked back on as
the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.
when you look at both how he managed foreign policy and when you think about how he handled domestic policy in each case he was thoughtful, restrained, and made good decisions. And I think that ultimately he was one of the more underrated presidents that we’ve ever had certainly in modern times.
So you have the soaring Obama rhetoric coupled with a substantive commitment to the comparatively dour realism of Bush I and Scowcroft. And the Obama doctrine, of course, wound up as “don’t do stupid [stuff].”
In evaluating his foreign policy legacy, a number of important policy issues are likely to come up. Did the Iran deal, as its critics allege, all but ensure that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapons capability? Did the administration’s decision not to participate more fully in the Syrian civil war doom that nation to a decade as a charnel house? Did the war in Libya do anything salutary beyond disposing of Muammar Qaddafi? Did the pivot to Asia amount to much after all?
But these policy arguments will obscure an element of Obama’s legacy that he shares with Scowcroft and Bush: During his time in office, Obama failed miserably to develop a farm team of Democratic realists–or at least realist sympathizers–who could continue reshaping the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment. In fact, with Hillary Clinton likely to win the presidency, Obama’s impact on the Democrats’ future foreign policy positions might be hard to identify.
On every issue where the Obama cabinet was divided between hawks and doves, Clinton was with the hawks. As my old Cato colleague Gene Healy has noted, “In her long career, she’s rarely met a war she didn’t like — or a constitutional limit she deems worth respecting.”
And this puts Clinton in the mainstream of Democratic foreign policy thought. The Democratic foreign policy elite is still intensely interventionist, and if you think the State Department grousing about Obama’s failure to plunge deeper into the Syrian morass was notable, pop by the Brookings Institution water cooler sometime. There is a broad resentment at Obama’s failure to wield U.S. power more…liberally…among the Democratic establishment.
All of this was predictable. As the old Washington saw goes, Personnel Are Policy. If you don’t have Cheney and Rumsfeld in the cabinet as well as Wolfowitz and Bolton and Feith inside the bureaucracies, it’s harder to start the Iraq War. And the reason there were so few Republican realists in the bureaucracies of Bush the Younger is because Scowcroft, Bush, James Baker, and others paid too little attention to developing their successors, particularly in comparison to the neoconservatives, who made it a priority.
To be sure, some Democratic foreign policy elites with realist leanings got ahead in the Obama administration. Jeremy Shapiro, who spent months at the State Department pointing out that nobody was offering an actual plan for what to do in Syria, remains a voice of sanity in a sea of Democrats calling out for more intervention.
But in the end, the Democratic Party of 2017 is going to look a lot like the Democratic Party of 2002. And that’s a sorry legacy Obama will share in common with Scowcroft and Bush. To leave an enduring mark on the Democrats’ foreign policy, Obama could have learned from his heroes’ mistakes.