Tuesday, July 29, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

Obama and the diplomacy pendulum

By
March 11, 2014 |

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 resolutely downsized.

Mitt Romney warned at the time that Obama wasn’t being tough enough on Vladimir Putin, but the president scoffed at the idea that Russia was a serious geopolitical threat.

It’s not quite fair to accuse Obama of direct responsibility for 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 called “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. They go on the offensive against those they see as adversaries. 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 (although he 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.

And some presidents straddle both camps. Clinton began as a minimalist, backing away from entanglement in Bosnia and elsewhere. But he soon discovered that U.S. airstrikes could accomplish what persuasion could not, and he became a proponent of what he called “diplomacy backed by force.”

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. As former CIA Director George J. Tenet once said, for every action in Washington “there is an unequal and opposite overreaction.”

Obama has that problem in the Middle East, where his fervor to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan and to deal with Iran through diplomacy has led leaders in Saudi Arabia and Israel to near-panic. Obama has steadfastly stuck to his intention to end old wars and avoid new ones, and to find cheaper ways to pursue U.S. interests abroad. “I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means or our interests,” he said in his 2009 speech announcing a timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan. “We must rebuild our strength here at home.”

But 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. “Obama’s challenge was the same faced by any president who presides over the pullback of American power: how to downsize foreign policy while retaining the ability to act decisively,” he writes.

That’s part of Obama’s challenge in Ukraine and beyond, Sestanovich told me last week.

It’s “the predicament of a retrencher,” he said. “You want to do less after a period of over-investment, but you don’t know how little will be enough to defend a scaled-back conception of American interests. The result can be brief efforts to assert American power but without much behind them, least of all a new strategy.”

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.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 3 comments

The Daily Republic does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

  • PornacMarch 11, 2014 - 6:49 am

    Let's send the navy into the Black Sea.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Rick WoodMarch 11, 2014 - 9:16 am

    Again, we DO have a military option, if you think globally. Syria is violating the agreement we had with them, facilitated by Russia, to avoid our bombing. We are justified in stiking there. If Russia wants to continue aiding its ally, they can get back in our good graces by settling matters in Ukraine in addition to getting Syria toe the line.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • patrickMarch 11, 2014 - 3:09 pm

    I remember the Cuban incident when JFK resolved the missile crisis the soviet union tried to install there. Very scary time. I don't believe we have the right people to handle this ----Obama has just cut the military budget. I'm sure that Putin reads our newspapers

    Reply | Report abusive comment
.

Solano News

Area LGBT Democratic Club cancels meet

By Glen Faison | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

 
Library teens plan summer reading party

By Glen Faison | From Page: A5

 
Weather for Tuesday, July 29, 2014

By Daily Republic staff | From Page:

 
Big-rig driver strikes telephone lines in Fairfield

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A5, 1 Comment | Gallery

 
Fairfield police log: July 27, 2014

By Glen Faison | From Page: A12

Suisun City police log: June 27, 2014

By Glen Faison | From Page: A12

 
Caltrans makes I-80 lane change

By Barry Eberling | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

 
Fairfield tries to end Cordelia Road detour

By Barry Eberling | From Page: A3, 1 Comment | Gallery

 
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ primed for big screen

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A7

.

US / World

 
Sacramento Gold Rush Days canceled due to drought

By The Associated Press | From Page:

Annoying minor floods are increasing on US coasts

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Man charged in teen’s 9-month disappearance

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

Medicare’s own health looking better, report says

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Deal to improve veterans’ health care costs $17B

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

Suspect dead, 2 marshals and cop wounded in NYC

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

 
New fears about Ebola spread after plane scare

By The Associated Press | From Page:

In Iraq’s Mosul, radicals unleash their vision

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Fighting in Ukraine prompts residents to flee

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

Israeli PM warns of prolonged campaign in Gaza war

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Witnesses: Thunderstorm hit beach without warning

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

Suspect’s mom also charged in Long Beach burglary

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
City: Emails show ‘cozy’ ties of PG&E, regulator

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

Pool water dumped in South Tahoe; resort fires 3

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Additional charge filed in California wildfire

By The Associated Press | From Page:

California governor takes dig at Texas guard plan

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

 
.

Opinion

Editorial cartoons for July 29, 2014

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page:

 
Immigration protests short on compassion

By John M. Crisp | From Page:

 
.

Living

Horoscopes for July 29, 2014

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: B5

 
Today in History for July 29, 2014

By The Associated Press | From Page:

I don’t want to have intimate contact since learning I had a STD

By Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar | From Page:

 
Community Calendar: July 29, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page:

.

Entertainment

Kevin Bacon brings his ‘Six Degrees’ to Comic-Con

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Sarah Palin launches online subscription channel

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

‘Sharknado’ sequel has bite and lots of laughs

By Frazier Moore | From Page: | Gallery

 
TVGrid July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

.

Sports

Giants lose 5th straight, 5-0 to Pirates

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
 
Lakers finally confirm Byron Scott is new coach

By The Associated Press | From Page:

Raiders relying on healthy Watson to solidify line

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
This date in sports history for Tuesday, July 29, 2014

By The Associated Press | From Page:

Quarterback Johnny Manziel’s day at Browns camp

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

 
Judge OKs record-setting $2B sale of Clippers

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

Humphrey to savor Hall of Fame day with ‘wingman’

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Rays’ Archer: ‘Never saw Hank Aaron flip his bat’

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Reed HOF induction gives Bills cause to celebrate

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

In the Pits: Gordon eyeing 5th title after big Brickyard win

By Jenna Fryer | From Page: | Gallery

 
Marketing agreement an obstacle in US bid for 2024

By The Associated Press | From Page:

Sailors to navigate dirty water in 1st Rio test

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Manningham back with Giants, with no guarantees

By The Associated Press | From Page:

.

Business

Contracts to buy US homes slip in June

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

 
FAA proposes to fine Southwest Airlines $12M

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

Stocks pause as traders await key economic news

By The Associated Press | From Page:

 
Zillow buying Trulia to build real estate titan

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

Dollar Tree steps up fight, buys Family Dollar

By The Associated Press | From Page: | Gallery

 
.

Obituaries

.

Comics

B.C. July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Get Fuzzy July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Baldo July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Baby Blues July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Rose is Rose July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Zits July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Crossword July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Garfield July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Pickles July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Frank and Ernest July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Beetle Bailey July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Peanuts July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Word Sleuth July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Cryptoquote July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

For Better or Worse July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Bridge July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Wizard of Id July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Dilbert July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Sally Forth July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Blondie July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Sudoku July 29

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5