Wednesday, July 23, 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

Fairfield labor pact wins City Council OK

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A1, 10 Comments | Gallery

 
 
 
Solano leaders feel left out of Delta decision-making

By Barry Eberling | From Page: A3

Polk first to file for Fairfield council

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A4, 2 Comments

 
Dally seeks to retain seat on Vacaville school board

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A5

 
Carpenters training center set to expand in Fairfield

By Barry Eberling | From Page: A5, 6 Comments | Gallery

 
Governor signs 2 bills by Frazier into law

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A5

2 Vacaville homes hit by gunfire

By Barry Eberling | From Page: A6, 2 Comments

 
Library friends set spring book sale

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A6

 
Video chair exercise class returns to senior center

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A6

 
Man, woman, comic and dance contest primed for box office

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A7

 
Rockville Trails hike on August calendar

By Barry Eberling | From Page: A8 | Gallery

 
Mayor’s Commission on Crime hears from community

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A12, 12 Comments | Gallery

.

US / World

Dueling rulings: Courts split on health law clash

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
Assailants sought in fatal train platform beating

By The Associated Press | From Page: A9

Senate, House on collision course on border money

By The Associated Press | From Page: B9

 
ACLU may fight for California migrant shelter

By The Associated Press | From Page: B9, 1 Comment

IRS employee charged with identity theft

By The Associated Press | From Page: A9

 
George Harrison memorial tree killed by beetles

By The Associated Press | From Page: A10, 1 Comment

California agency to consider hiring “water cops”

By The Associated Press | From Page: A10, 1 Comment

 
Gaza blockade key to any Israel-Hamas truce deal

By The Associated Press | From Page: B10

Mexican-born professor eyed for state high court

By The Associated Press | From Page: A10 | Gallery

 
Airlines ban flights to Israel after rocket strike

By The Associated Press | From Page: B10

Board puts soda tax before San Francisco voters

By The Associated Press | From Page: A10

 
AP source: Thieves got into 1K StubHub accounts

By The Associated Press | From Page: A12

Obama nominee McDonald pledges to ‘transform’ VA

By The Associated Press | From Page: A12

 
Body of missing S. Korean shipping tycoon found

By The Associated Press | From Page: A12

Crews make gains on massive Washington wildfire

By The Associated Press | From Page: A12

 
11 parents of Nigeria’s abducted girls die

By The Associated Press | From Page: A12

Lax security at crash site hampers investigations

By The Associated Press | From Page: A13

 
Plane crash bodies removed from war zone

By The Associated Press | From Page: A13

.

Opinion

 
 
Walmart donation benefits Meals on Wheels

By Letter to the Editor | From Page: A11, 2 Comments

Batson’s column on Mideast peace is wrong

By Letter to the Editor | From Page: A11, 5 Comments

 
Fix our problems first

By Letter to the Editor | From Page: A11, 7 Comments

.

Living

Today in History for July 23, 2014

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

 
Community Calendar: July 23, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A2

How to argue appropriately with your mate

By Barton Goldsmith | From Page: A2

 
A summer sausage roll with a triple dose of fennel

By The Associated Press | From Page: B6

10 Things: 10 fresh ways to use fresh blueberries

By J.M. Hirsch | From Page: B6

 
Horoscopes for July 23, 2014

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: B6

Bulking up the classic BLT without adding fat

By Sara Moulton | From Page: B6

 
I’m tired of my parents judging me because of who I date

By Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar | From Page: B6

.

Entertainment

‘X-Men’ VR experience coming to Comic-Con

By The Associated Press | From Page: A7

 
‘Downton Abbey’ back on Jan. 4 for season 5

By The Associated Press | From Page: A7

TVGrid

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B8

 
.

Sports

Raiders enter camp with ‘chip’ on shoulders

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
49ers start fresh after forgettable offseason

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
Giants beat Phillies 9-6 in 14 innings

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

A’s agree to 10-year lease to stay in Oakland

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
AP source: Cavs to sign Andrew Wiggins to contract

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

Paterno son, other former assistant sue Penn State

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
Pyrenees please Nibali, Rogers in Tour Stage 16

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3 | Gallery

Warriors announce Brandon Rush’s signing

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
CEO: Rivers to quit Clippers if Sterling stays

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

Racehorse owned by Britain’s queen fails dope test

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
Mudcats score early, get 7-3 win over South Bay Storm

By Daily Republic staff | From Page: B3

Seahawks start atop AP Pro32 rankings

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
Selig still waiting on Tommy John report

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

.

Business

Ackman goes after Herbalife’s nutrition clubs

By The Associated Press | From Page: B8, 1 Comment

 
China meat scandal hits Starbucks, Burger King

By The Associated Press | From Page: B8

Solid earnings drive more gains in US stocks

By The Associated Press | From Page: B8

 
Microsoft 4Q earnings hurt by Nokia acquisition

By The Associated Press | From Page: B8

Apple post biggest earnings gain in nearly 2 years

By The Associated Press | From Page: B8

 
One in every 25 New Yorkers is a millionaire, study says

By Los Angeles Times | From Page: B8

California firm issues nationwide fruit recall

By The Associated Press | From Page: A10

 
.

Obituaries

John Klefstad

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

 
.

Comics

Dilbert

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Blondie

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Frank and Ernest

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Garfield

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Rose is Rose

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Sally Forth

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Beetle Bailey

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
B.C.

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Baldo

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Wizard of Id

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Baby Blues

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Peanuts

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Zits

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Pickles

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

For Better or Worse

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Get Fuzzy

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Word Sleuth

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

 
Cryptoquote

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

Bridge

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

 
Sudoku

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6