How Obama's Foreign Policy 'Long Game' Works

President Barack Obama in the Situation Room of the White House. Flickr/White House

It's a framework or checklist, not a doctrine.

Obama’s skepticism is more than a philosophical disposition; it also shapes his view of Washington foreign policy expertise. He believes that on the issue that mattered most since the end of the Cold War—whether to invade Iraq in 2003—most experts were wrong. At a more personal level, Obama and his core team always felt apart from—and never felt much respected by-- the Washington crowd, many of whom popped off in the press and griped about not being consulted enough.

This does not mean that Obama entirely discounts Washington experience—his Administration has been well-stocked with Beltway veterans (among them, of course, Hillary Clinton). But when listening to the Washington debate, he is troubled by the blending of policy and punditry, its obsession with symbolism and theater, and the lack of accountability. He concedes that the Long Game approach runs counter to the incentives that drive Washington. Obama is trying to be a foreign policy version of Warren Buffett in a debate dominated by day traders.

Exceptionalism. The engine that propels Obama’s strategy is American exceptionalism.

Obama has said that American exceptionalism is an “essential truth,” and he has talked more about exceptionalism than any other previous President. His America is the strongest nation on earth (as he repeated for emphasis three straight times in his final State of the Union address, “It’s not even close”). It is a force of ingenuity and innovation, respect and inspiration. And he recognizes that exceptionalism brings tremendous responsibilities—that because of its distinct power, American leadership remains “indispensable.”

Exceptionalism is not the same as domination. What makes America different is that it can lead in multiple ways—it can be out front, or it can operate more behind the scenes. Obama believes that, in foreign policy as in life, just as there are times when you have to do most of the work, you sometimes get better outcomes when you let others take the credit. This is common sense. But it also is rooted in the idea of the paradox of American power—that while the United States can do more than anyone else, it cannot do it all. That reality requires an exercise of power that is more nimble, clever, and persuasive.

Nor is exceptionalism an assertion that the United States is flawless. Obama’s America is not, in the words of Ronald Reagan’s farewell address, a “shining city on a hill,” a delicate perfection that must be carefully preserved. Instead America is a restless country, one that is chronically dissatisfied with itself, always striving to be better, reaching for more, seeking renewal. It is not an exceptionalism rooted in warm nostalgia of the past, or fear that the future will be taken away from us. What makes the United States exceptional is that it is a project with a future—what makes America exceptional is its ability to seek perfection relentlessly, not to claim it hubristically.

So what presents the greatest threat to America’s exceptionalism is not an outside force. It is from within. What’s often missed about Obama’s worldview is the fundamental optimism and deep confidence he has in the American people—the kinds of common citizens who, in the best traditions of Selma, have stood up to do the right thing time and again. But alongside this confidence is a substantial pessimism about American elites (which is ironic, given Obama is often accused of being elitist). His frustration about the state of the country’s political debate—and how the United States should respond to the changing world—runs just as deep. As he said in his final State of the Union address, one of the few regrets of his time in office is that the “rancor and suspicion” has only become worse. To remain exceptional, we must change our politics.

Seen this way, Obama’s effort make the Long Game checklist the new Washington consensus remains unfinished business. To be sure, some of the reasons why are attributable to Obama’s missteps—such as the Syria red line—in which the process tarnished the outcome and offered critics an easy target to caricature. Arguably, these are the moments when he diverted most from his instincts (in the case of Syria, setting a self-made rhetorical trap). However, the bigger problem for shaping America’s role in the world still remains the way we—experts, think tankers, journalists, politicos—think about these issues and talk about them. Despite Obama’s efforts, US foreign policy debate remains trapped in an endless loop of crisis. In fact, the debate is an inherent component of the crisis.

So just as Dwight Eisenhower left office over a half-century ago warning of the “unwarranted influence” of the military-industrial complex and its powers to distort policy, as the Obama era ends, we’ve seen the apotheosis of a different kind of ill, a “media-political-industrial complex” that exerts an influence over the making of national security policy that can be similarly damaging.

Derek Chollet is Counselor at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, and served in the Obama Administration in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon. This article is adapted from his recent book, The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America's Role in the World.

Image: President Barack Obama in the Situation Room of the White House. Flickr/White House.

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