The Political Perils of Pragmatism

President Obama's pragmatic approach to foreign policy has long frustrated observers. His decisions -- drawing down forces in Iraq while surging troops into Afghanistan, leaving the Fifth Fleet docked in Bahrain while the Sixth Fleet pummels Libya -- have laid him bare to charges of inconsistency and incoherence.

A Politico headline sums up the common complaint: "In Search of the 'Obama Doctrine."  "I certainly don't see any Obama doctrine," sniped Max Boot. "Instead what I see is the president frantically reacting to the press of events." In an effort to explain itself, the administration summoned a small group of generally-sympathetic wonks to the West Wing. Brian Katulis, for one, walked away unconvinced, puckishly tweeting: "Can you help me find something? I'm looking for that Obama doctrine on national security."

The problem, of course, is that the president is committed to not applying a single, simple frame to a complex and evolving world. Doctrines are antithetical to pragmatism. Yet in our increasingly democratic age, as the electorate insistently wrests control of foreign affairs away from the mandarins, they are also indispensable tools of persuasion. And a president who cannot persuade the public of his approach, tying together disparate policies into a convincing package, risks losing the ability to implement or sustain his vision.

This is the paradox of pragmatism: the flexibility most likely to produce success is often least likely to consolidate political support.  

Pragmatic decisions, of course, are not arbitrary. The administration appears committed to using force when the costs are proportionate to the benefits, and the means commensurate with the ends. It is a test, applied to each emerging crisis, and then reapplied as circumstances change.

In fact, the foreign policy of the Obama administration has been neither more nor less consistent than its predecessors. It is distinguished, instead, by its forthright approach to inconsistency. Foreign policy built around a doctrine offers a clear sense of purpose, and then excuses the inevitable deviations from the doctrine as exceptional. A pragmatic foreign policy eschews the illusion of strategic consistency, instead articulating a set of principles and then applying them on a case-by-case basis. And there are very real benefits to such an approach. Such a foreign policy is less likely to shoehorn individual conflicts into a common framework, a problem that has long bedeviled our foreign adventures. It is sensitive to shades of gray.   

It is also singularly maddening to observe in action. Adam Garfinkle posted the most devastating critique of the evolving policy, arguing that the mission is poorly defined, its available means mismatched to its only logical ends, and utterly devoid of an exit strategy. He concludes, in despair, that "this can only end badly, and that what is left to policy at this point is to figure out the least bad of all possible outcomes and struggle toward it."

Not coincidentally, figuring out the least bad option and struggling towards it is precisely how this administration conceives of the policy-making process. Garfinkle longs for greater clarity. A decade ago, for example, he declared: "The Taliban must go. So must the Ba'athi regime in Iraq." Marching in, deposing hostile regimes, and marching right out again does indeed offer a bracing degree of clarity in prospect. The trouble is that imposing clear doctrines on complicated realities tends to fall apart in practice.

Committing to using sufficient force to depose Qaddafi, or conversely, clearly limiting our mission in Libya to patrolling the skies, would have the benefit of establishing the terms of a public debate, and of giving the president the chance to sell the fight to the American public. It would also lock in a policy that may not be well suited to rapidly-shifting circumstances. Obama's gamble is that his embrace of strategic ambiguity will endow him with the flexibility to secure the best available outcome, thereby silencing his critics. But even if his pragmatism succeeds abroad, it seems unlikely to win over the electorate at home.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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