clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This is the best explanation of what conservatives don’t like about Obama’s foreign policy

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

It's easy to recite the litany of conservative critiques of Obama's foreign policy. He's too afraid to use American power. He cozies up to dictators and scorns American allies. He's naïve, feckless, and hubristic.

It's not always obvious to non-conservatives, though, how these individual arguments add up or where they come from. That's what makes a new Mosaic Magazine essay, by the Hudson Institute's Michael Doran, so interesting. Over the course of its 9,000 or so words, it presents a unified conservative theory of Obama's Middle East policy: one that tells you a lot about how conservatives tend to see Obama's foreign policy, and why they are often so earnestly concerned about it.

According to Doran, Obama's approaches and policies toward the Middle East are all to some degree geared toward, or at least shaped by, a grand and catastrophic plan to align the United States with Iran. You can agree or disagree with Doran's interpretation of Obama's foreign policy, but his essay is essential reading if you want to understand where the right is coming from on foreign policy.

The argument, at its most basic level, weaves together four main components, each of which picks up on elements of the right-leaning critique of the administration's approach to world politics.

1) Obama wants to ally with Iran and that's reckless

Obama Rouhani phone call

Obama on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Pete Souza/White House/Getty Images)

Doran believes that Obama came into the presidency with a grand design for the Middle East. "All along, Obama has regarded his hoped-for 'comprehensive agreement' with Iran as an urgent priority, and, with rare exceptions, has consistently wrapped his approach to that priority in exceptional layers of secrecy," Doran writes.

The plan to convert Iran into "a friend and a partner," according to Doran, is "central to his administration's strategic thinking about the role of the United States in the world, and especially in the Middle East."

This takes the common conservative worry that Iran has grown in influence under Obama — John McCain has said this concerns him more than the rise of ISIS — and recasts it as an intentional, rather than unintentional, result of Obama's Middle East policy.

2) Obama's unwillingness to confront Iran is destabilizing the region

ali khamenei

Ali Khamenei. (

Doran believes that Obama isn't sufficiently countering Iran's rise, and thus abetting it, because the president believes rogue states are better tamed by cooperation than confrontation. If the US works to integrate rogue states into the international system, they'll tamp down their aggression. (This is indeed an important line of thinking in Obama's worldview.) "In Obamaworld, America would disarm its rivals by ensnaring them in a web of cooperation," Doran writes.

Doran believes this is fatally naïve. The Iranian leaders do bad things because the intent of their foreign policy is to disrupt the American led-regional order. Iran wants to expand its influence, so it sends murderous militias into Iraq and helps prop up Bashar al-Assad's evil regime. The Iranians oppose the current geopolitical order as a matter of principle, not because they're waiting for an American president to invite them in.

Obama's critics on the hill take a similar line. "Just because the enemy of your enemy sometimes wants to help you, that doesn't mean they're still not your adversary," Former Rep. Mike Rogers, who was Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee until 2015, said of Obama's Iran policy last year.

3) Obama's attempts at working with Iran are strengthening it

michael doran

Michael Doran. (Brookings)

For Doran, Obama's policy isn't just failing to stop Iran's malign behavior: it's actively making it easier for Tehran to accomplish its objectives. The clearest example of this in Doran's essay is the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

The essential argument is that Iran is pocketing recent American concessions, such as sanctions relief, without any intention of ever dismantling its nuclear program. They know Obama wants to make a deal, and are cannily exploiting that desire to strengthen themselves before the final drive for a nuke. "[Obama's] twin goals of liberating Iran from its international isolation and stripping the Islamic Republic of its nuclear capabilities were completely at odds with each other," Doran writes.

Once again, Doran's argument mirrors what you hear from Congressional Republicans. "The nuclear negotiations have become an endless series of concessions to Iran," Sen. Tom Cotton writes in the Wall Street Journal. "It is the nature of Iran's regime to kill Americans, export terror, destabilize the Middle East and foment world-wide Islamic revolution."

4) Obama is forcing American allies to act alone

trump tweet to iran, trump iran threat Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

As Obama ramps down the threat of US military action against countries such as Iran, they amp up their provocations. That forces American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia to act on their own to counter Iran — which (a) is less effective than direct American action and (b) creates counterproductive tension between America and its close allies.

Take Syria, where Obama is doing little to directly stop Iranian intervention on Bashar al-Assad's behalf. Doran's analysis suggests American inaction predictably led anti-Iran Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia to support Islamist Syrian rebels, which ended up empowering ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria.

"The president's policy assumes that Israel and America's other allies will hang back quietly while Iran takes southern Syria firmly in its grip," Doran writes. "They will not; to assume otherwise is folly."

This combines two common conservative arguments: that Obama's weakness emboldens our enemies, and that Obama is undermining American allies. Because Obama's worldview demands he treat rogue states with kid gloves, the thinking goes, it is a structural necessity that he'll weaken alliances that exist, at least in part, to combat those rogue states. The result of that, Doran says, will be more instability and violence.

Again, you don't have to agree with all of Doran's arguments, let alone his big conclusion. One might say the argument unfairly brushes aside Obama's support for sanctions on Iran, for example, as well as the importance of Iran's concessions during nuclear negotiations. It also relies on a real degree of unevidenced speculation about what happened within closed-door administration meetings to guide these policies.

But, regardless, Doran's essay is an essential window into the politically salient mainline conservative criticism of the Obama administration's Middle East policy. It's well worth your time.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.