Reassessing Obama’s legacy of restraint

Paul Miller writes: Obama’s foreign policy worldview came from his self-conscious effort to learn the lessons of history — specifically, the lessons of the George W. Bush administration — which no one will fault. As anyone who has ever taken a class in history or political science knows, Obama knew George Santayana’s famous aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” But learning the lessons of history can be difficult, even deceptive. Obama does not seem to have known Robert Jervis’ important riposte to Santayana that “those who remember the past are condemned to make the opposite mistake.”

Obama made the opposite mistake. In his eagerness to avoid making Bush’s mistakes, he made a whole new set of mistakes. He over-interpreted the recent past, fabricating the myth about a hyper-interventionist establishment. As a result, he overreacted to the situation he inherited in 2009 and, crucially, never adjusted during his eight years in office. In this sense and others, he contrasts starkly with Bush, who made major changes in his second term. The result is that Obama retrenched when he should have engaged. He oversaw the collapse of order across the Middle East and the resurgence of great power rivalry in Europe while mismanaging two wars and reducing America’s military posture abroad to its smallest footprint since World War II. Despite the paeans of Obama’s admirers, this is not a foreign policy legacy future presidents will want to emulate. [Continue reading…]

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