PRESIDENT BARACK Obama is in many respects the opposite of Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, both foreign-policy presidents who subordinated their domestic ambitions to America’s national-security requirements. Moreover, where Obama has succeeded internationally, his successes have been largely tactical rather than strategic, reflecting the fact that he is fundamentally a domestic leader with a European-style socialist agenda but little or no foreign-policy vision. This lack of an international agenda is why the president may be called a pragmatist, but not a realist.
One result of all this is that his administration’s foreign-policy choices often appear substantially driven by political expediency—and particularly a desire to avoid domestic criticism, something apparent in both the president’s surge in Afghanistan and his later plan for withdrawal. Another is that, lacking a vision, the administration rarely appears to engage in long-term thinking about the international environment, historical processes or the potential unintended consequences of its choices. In fact, its sense of history seems highly politicized and simplistic.