The "yes, but" strategic logic behind Obama's foreign policy


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
I have been reflecting on President Obama's foreign policy thus far and I think I have identified what my Duke colleague Ole Holsti might call his "operational code": the link between beliefs and behavior that generates a predisposition, a general pattern of action that, more often than not, points to the options taken or not taken. Of course, as with any leader, there is a fair bit of ad hoc cost-benefit calculation and some making it up as they go along. But I also think there is a strategic logic that one can trace through it and that explains a remarkable number of the choices President Obama and his team have made.

I call it the "yes, but" strategic logic because what Obama has sought to do is systematically neutralize (in a rhetorical debating sense of the term) the laundry list of complaints about US foreign policy that other countries use as excuses whenever we would push them to help us on pressing American priorities like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and so on. We would ask for help on Iraq because it was so vital, and they would say, "Yes, but you haven't done anything on Israeli settlements." We would ask for help on strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime and they would say, "Yes, but you have your own nuclear arsenal." We would ask for help on preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and they would say, "Yes, but what about the Israeli nuclear arsenal?" or (in Russia's case), "Yes, but what about your missile defenses in Poland?" We would ask states to encourage moderate Muslims to speak out more forcefully against terrorists and they would say, "Yes, but what about Guantanamo?" Etc. etc.

Well, I think Obama has sought to build his own "yes, but" response. "Yes," in the sense that he tends to agree with the complaint, and "but" in the sense that he has a good talking point to offer in rebuttal: "But we signed an exec order closing GITMO," "But we slapped Israel around on settlements," "But we have committed to global nuclear zero," "But we have publicly endorsed a Middle East nuke-free zone," "But we have committed to climate change," "But we have shut down the Polish missile defense site," and so on.

One can trace this strategic logic through each step in the Obama team's year-long ramp-up to the recent Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review conference. Virtually every action taken or speech given by President Obama on nuclear issues for the first 16 months of his presidency constitutes a rebuttal of this or that objection raised by others whenever U.S. diplomats have pressed them to strengthen the NPT.

The "yes, but" strategic logic sets priorities, and so explains why President Obama has worked hard on some issues and not others, even ones that he (or his campaign team) signaled during the campaign would be high priorities. Thus, President Obama has been remarkably muted on Sudan even though his campaign team mocked President Bush for not being tough enough on Darfur. Why ignore Sudan? Perhaps because Obama has discovered what used to frustrate President Bush so much: that the rest of the world simply does not care about Sudan and it was only the United States who pushed the issue. With no one saying, "Yes, but what about Darfur?" it drops off of the agenda.

It also explains odd anomalies, such as the aggressive stance taken on the Honduran political crisis -- a stance that had Obama's team challenging the constitutionality of the rulings of Honduras' own court authorized to adjudicate the case -- and the utterly passive stance taken on Thailand's political crisis. Critics of America complained about Honduras and have been silent (so far) on Thailand.

I do not mean to suggest that President Obama is only taking the stance he takes on these issues to please the external critics of the United States. On the contrary, I think he is taking a principled position that he believes is the correct one. But he is expending political capital and prioritizing the issues that get raised by other countries and not pushing things that other countries sweep under the rug. And it means that he has been particularly assiduous about dealing with objections raised by adversaries (or at least by recalcitrant partners) and far less assiduous about tending to the feelings of allies (just as Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Alvaro Uribe).

If I am right, there is a genuine strategic goal in all of this: to have on our side of the negotiating table a big pile of "yes, but" chips to be played by Obama and his diplomats the next time we ask a country to do something.

Obama: "Please ramp up economic sanctions on Iran because an Iranian nuclear weapon would be deeply destabilizing."

Other country: "Yes, but what about Israel's nuclear weapon—isn't that destablizing?"

Obama: "Yes, but we have broken with U.S. precedent and publicly called for a Middle East nuclear-free zone."

Now, if those objections really did account for, or at least meaningfully contribute to, the refusal of other countries to step up on any of the major problems, then the Obama strategy makes sense. In this case, playing out the scenario one further step, the expectation would be: Other country: "Well, in that case, I guess we have less reason to object and we should join you in tough sanctions on Iran."

But if they were mere excuses, then Obama will score rhetorical points but not make much more headway on actual policy. I am curious to hear whether the Obama team thinks this is a fair description of the strategic logic they have followed and, if so, whether they think the strategy is working well.

Global Defence

New threads