American voters are fickle. They watch their presidents plunge into ill-advised wars, and then select successors who promise to bring the troops home. And they watch their presidents approach crises with caution, and then vote for candidates promising to restore American power.
President Obama’s term in office, said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was marked by the pendulum swinging toward caution. “Much of his administration was a conscious reaction what he saw of his predecessor of trying to do much,” he said. “Seeing the dangers of doing too much, he opted to do less, and I think what historians will see is that he opted to do too little in places.”
He spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. He was joined by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, and by James Steinberg, who served as deputy secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, and now teaches at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
Steinberg agreed that Obama had tried to change course, but offered a more charitable read of the administration’s foreign policy. “The United States stepping back—not because it wanted to step back but to encourage others to play a larger role,” wasn’t in itself the issue, he said. “The problem was that others didn’t step up to the plate. The theory of the case required others to step up to the plate ... and what we’re seeing, especially in the Middle East is that that just hasn’t happened.”