President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine is so minimalist that my colleague Matt Yglesias has referred to it as an "undoctrine." It doesn’t lay out any grand framework for action. Instead, it lays out a framework for inaction: namely, as Obama puts it, "Don’t do stupid shit."
There’s an off-putting smugness to that phrasing, as if his chief foreign policy aim were to parry criticism. But behind that self-conscious pithiness is a serious distinction between Obama and much of the foreign policy establishment.
That distinction has made Obama's foreign policy, at times, disastrously shortsighted. It has led him to pursue the same tactics over and over again, despite the fact that they fail the same way every time, and to prefer inaction to action in ways that lead to serious strategic mistakes. But his particular brand of foreign policy and the worldview that informs it is also what made this week's historic Iran nuclear deal possible.
If Yemen (or Egypt or Syria) showed Obama's foreign policy at its worst, then the Iran deal is his foreign policy at its best. I do not give him credit easily, but it is worth giving him credit for this, because it is a big deal.
Obama's moneyball foreign policy
Obama's "undoctrine" starts from the position that there is no need to find a universal foreign policy framework. It's enough to find specific wins, he believes, and minimize losses.
In his view, foreign policy isn’t a matter of showing strength or trying to make sure that every US action furthers its interests around the entire world. It’s a moneyball approach to foreign affairs: Don't focus on playing a beautiful game, focus on racking up points at the lowest possible cost. To Obama, that's how you win.
By contrast, much of US foreign policy has been about playing a beautiful game: pursuing the loftiest possible goals — transforming regions, unseating hostile regimes, ensuring that no threat to US interests or allies goes unanswered — and viewing any compromise of those goals as a defeat.
If you know what to look for, you will see that idea constantly in US foreign policy. It's behind the critique that the Iran deal is a disaster because it fails to unseat the hostile regime in Tehran. It's what kept the Cuba embargo in place for so long — the insistence that the US should hold out for ending communism eventually and refuse to compromise in the meantime, even though it was clear that the embargo wasn't doing anything to serve US interests or values.
It's behind conservative hawks' insistence that the US should never, ever negotiate with a hostile regime, as well as liberal interventionists' belief that the US should be willing to put boots on the ground to protect civilians and halt mass atrocities.
But Obama isn't interested in playing a beautiful game, he's interested in wins — and especially interested in cheap ones.
The same worldview that led to Obama's failures elsewhere made his success in Iran possible
Obama's undoctrine is really well-suited to orderly negotiations that take place in an air-conditioned hotel in Vienna, but is far less effective when it comes to problems like chaotic state collapse. The latter sort of problem is a more common one in today's Middle East, and Obama is perilously unsuited to face it.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, for instance, Obama's allergy to risk has led him to repeatedly pursue the same limited proxy war strategy, with the same kinds of bad outcomes each time, from Libya to Syria to Yemen.
That hasn't achieved any wins, ugly or otherwise, and it has arguably contributed to catastrophic losses. Those countries collapsed into violence and chaos that have made the region more unstable and more hostile to US interests, left millions of civilians in terrible danger, and triggered a refugee crisis that now spans multiple continents.
Obama's legacy in the Middle East will rightfully be associated with these crises and the failure to solve them. (The same goes for his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose Iraq invasion set many of these trends in motion.) But that same legacy, that same small-c conservatism, risk aversion, and narrow focus on achieving the achievable, will also be associated with the Iran deal. And if the deal works out as well as arms control analysts expect it to, it will be a major and well-earned accomplishment.
President Bill Clinton tried for a big, historic detente with Iran, and it failed. President George W. Bush tried in his first term to coerce Iran into changing its ways, and in his second term tried for a nuclear deal not totally unlike the one Obama got. All of these were grand, arc-of-history efforts meant to profoundly change things. And they all failed. Obama's didn't.
The difference between Obama and his predecessors
During his first presidential campaign, Obama said that he would be willing to meet, without preconditions, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. At the time, that was so controversial that the media covered it as a gaffe, but to Obama it clearly seemed like a no-brainer: Talk was cheap, and if it could advance US interests, then so much the better.
That came through as well in Obama's interview this week with the New York Times's Thomas Friedman about the Iran deal. Over and over, Friedman pushed the president on why the Iran deal wasn't more ambitious, why Obama hadn't tried to use more leverage to achieve something bigger. And over and over, Obama insisted that it wasn't intended to be ambitious: The nuclear deal was intended to protect American interests by preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, or at least delaying it.
Of course it was true, the president said, that Iran "has an authoritarian theocracy in charge that is anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, sponsors terrorism." But trying to do anything about that, in Obama's view, was too lofty and risky a goal — one that would distract from the more modest but achievable goal of preventing that hostile regime from getting nuclear weapons.
And he achieved it. "Let’s see exactly what we obtained," he told Friedman. "We have cut off every pathway for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon."
And to Obama's great credit, that is an important breakthrough. It doesn't solve the underlying problem of a hostile Iran, but it does limit the damage the regime can do to the US and its allies. That's a win. And it is one that a president like, say, George W. Bush could never have achieved.