When Barack Obama arrived at the White House, he quickly acted on the foreign policy promises he'd made in his presidential campaign, drawing up a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, seeking diplomatic "engagement" with adversaries such as Iran and North Korea, and trying to "reset" the contentious U.S. relationship with Russia.
But until last month, he hadn't laid out his broader approach to the world beyond our borders.
Now he has, in the recently released National Security Strategy, a lengthy essay required by Congress.
The short version — to save you from reading 52 pages of numbing generalities — is this: We still want to do a little bit of everything, but after almost a decade of war, we're overstretched and need to concentrate first on fixing the domestic economy. When it comes to problems overseas, we'll do what we can as long as it doesn't cost too much.
Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, President Obama's foreign policy isn't about pursuing one or two overriding goals — in Bush's case, defeating terrorism and spreading democracy. Instead, it's about what economists might call "sustainability," making sure we don't take on wars or other commitments that we can't afford. In an earlier generation, Walter Lippmann called this "solvency." It was essential, Lippmann believed, to bring "into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power."
Critics will call this retrenchment. On the right, conservatives accuse Obama of plotting to cut defense spending; on the left, human rights activists complain that he's not committing much U.S. power to promote democracy abroad. They're both right, although those defense cuts haven't exactly happened yet. The main theme of Obama's foreign policy so far has been: Never mind what we might like to do; how much do we need to do?
The National Security Strategy isn't entirely candid about this; after all, it's a public document, designed to avoid offending. Foreign policy pundits have complained that it lists every conceivable hope as a goal, including ending nuclear proliferation and bringing peace to the Middle East, along with universal access to healthcare and better education for American children. But the critics miss the point. When a national security strategy lists healthcare reform alongside "work[ing] to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," it's arguing that international goals shouldn't override domestic goals.
And when Obama was forced to distill the message into fewer than 52 pages — in his speech at West Point last month, for example — his actual priorities were clear enough.
"Even as we fight the wars in front of us, we also have to see the horizon beyond these wars," he said, a gentle way of saying the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East are no longer, to him, the main event.
And entanglements abroad can't come at the cost of domestic well-being. "At no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy," he said. "Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending its power."
That last phrase was a reference to something Osama bin Laden has said: that Al Qaeda's strategy is to entice the United States into "bleeding wars" throughout the Muslim world until the superpower is spread too thin. Obama's answer has been: We'll fight, but not that way. That's why he's trying to wage the war on terror (or rather "combat violent extremism," as he prefers) on the cheap, by increasing U.S. drone attacks against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia even as he seeks, eventually, to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan.
The Obama aide who was the principal author of the National Security Strategy, Ben Rhodes, said that one of its aims was to limit the war on terror through "a narrow definition of who we're at war with": Al Qaeda and its allies.
"There are many, many terrorist groups around the world," he said. "We're not at war with … all those terrorist groups."
In the end, what Obama laid out was more a set of premises — a worldview — than it was a strategy. And he will face at least two challenges in making it work.
One, which the deliberately bland National Security Strategy didn't solve, is explaining his approach to the American people. As a nation, we accept that there are limits to what we can and should do abroad, but we don't always like it. We still want to maintain the world's most effective armed forces, defeat terrorism, spread democracy and bring peace to the Middle East, even as we complain about government spending.
"Obama became president the moment after the collapse of a hubris bubble," said Peter Beinart, author of "The Icarus Syndrome," a brilliant new book about the pendulum swings of U.S. foreign policy between excessive ambition and excessive retrenchment. "He needs to convince Americans that we can become stronger even as we retrench militarily. That is incredibly perilous, politically."
The other challenge is the certainty of unexpected events. When Obama came to office, he knew he faced an economic crisis and two wars. But he didn't know that a BP oil well would explode, that Israel would clash with Turkey or that a Nigerian student would fly to Detroit last Christmas with a bomb in his pants — an event that, had luck not intervened, could have vaulted terrorism back to its old status as the all-consuming focus of American policy. As U.S. Marines like to note, the enemy has a vote too.