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Obama's Foreign Policy: The First Two Years

The Obama administration has said that its foreign policy ideas defy traditional categorization and ideologies.

"Obama has emphasized bureaucratic efficiency over ideology, and approached foreign policy as if it were case law, deciding his response to every threat or crisis on his own merits," Ryan Lizza writes in the May 2 edition of The New Yorker. "[The president recently said on NBC News that] 'when you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you're going to get yourself in trouble.' "

On today's Fresh Air, Lizza details President Obama's response to the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and explains why the president's actions — in Egypt and then in Libya — say a great deal about the administration's foreign policy strategy.

Lizza also describes what he says are clashing ideologies and divisions that exist within the Obama administration between two camps: the "realists," who view foreign policy in terms of an end game; and the "idealists," who focus on issues like human rights and democracy.

Those two camps recently disagreed, he says, on whether to intervene in Libya. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, described by Lizza as a "consistent realist," opposed any intervention in Libya because he did not think intervening was "in the vital interest of the United States."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, pushed for an intervention, Lizza says, making a powerful case that "even though Libya was not in our vital interest, [the U.S.] had a responsibility to protect the citizens of Benghazi."

With Libya, says Lizza, the Obama administration decided to intervene — but only after emphasizing the fact that other Arab states, specifically the Arab League, also called for interventions in Libya. In March, the administration quietly took measures to broaden a French and British U.N. proposal asking for a no-fly zone over Libya into permission for full-scale military intervention — without making it appear like the United States was pulling any strings, Lizza says.

"They were very quiet about [their role]," says Lizza. "And there was a lot of criticism from the right [saying], 'Oh. The French. How can we let the French be leading on this?' and I think, to some of Obama's advisers, that's not the worst thing in the world. Their view is that they inherited a United States that was economically weaker and [militarily] dragged down by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and that burden-sharing was something that they should look forward to and not something that in some way demeans the United States."

Interview Highlights

On criticism about the phrase "leading from behind," used by an Obama administration official to describe the president's actions in Libya

"I do think it crystallizes the different ways that Republicans and Democrats view foreign policy. A lot of Republicans believe that worrying about backlash and resentment with how the U.S. acts in the world is overrated, and that's not really a problem. The Obama administration takes it very seriously. ... [The phrase] really gets at something very central to the ways the two parties view foreign policy."

Ryan Lizza is the Washington correspondent for <em>The New Yorker</em>. He was previously a senior editor at <em>The New Republic</em>.
/ The New Yorker
Ryan Lizza is the Washington correspondent for <em>The New Yorker</em>. He was previously a senior editor at <em>The New Republic</em>.

On the disagreement by Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates over Libya

"Gates, as he said publicly, simply believed that Libya was not in the vital interest of the United States, and if it's not in the vital interest, then you have the question of, 'Well, we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands' — the crisis being [leader Moammar] Gadhafi's forces were on the outskirts of Benghazi and Gadhafi and his sons were publicly saying that they were going to go house to house to find these rebels. So you had a pretty convincing case that an imminent massacre was going to take place. And if you're Bob Gates, the world is a very ugly place where lots of bad things happen and it's not the United States' job to intervene every time something like that happens even if we can. Clinton comes out of a very different tradition. One of the things that the Bill Clinton White House was known for was its development of a policy of humanitarian intervention, and I think one of the things that both Clintons are tormented by are the cases where they didn't intervene — specifically Rwanda. This is something in Hillary Clinton's blood and she, as did other people in the Obama administration, made a powerful case that even though Libya was not in our vital interest — Libya is not Saudi Arabia, for instance — we had a responsibility to protect the citizens of Benghazi essentially."

On traveling with Secretary Clinton to Egypt where members of a youth revolutionary group boycotted her meeting

"Very early on in the protests, she made a statement that the [Hosni] Mubarak regime is stable. Now objectively, it wasn't an incorrect statement — the Mubarak regime was stable. But the protesters had this burned into their memories as 'Hillary Clinton supporting the Mubarak regime.' " And that was the reason they cited most often to me for boycotting her meeting. I was meeting with these guys at the same time she was meeting with other members with civil society. So she was upstairs and these guys were downstairs meeting with me and a couple of other reporters. She was really realistic about it. She pointed out that she was involved with protest movements when she was younger. She talked about her work with the Vietnam War and how in every revolution, there are people who take absolutist positions and boycott this or that meeting. She didn't really seem too bothered about it, to be honest. And she very pointedly said, 'Ryan, the people who start revolutions are not necessarily the same people who go on to run the country.' Her takeaway was she was very worried about what was going on in terms of the transition in Cairo because there's no recent history of political engagement, of party building, and the people she met with, she found disorganized and not quite ready for the elections that were coming. And she was very worried about that, particularly because the one group that is organized is the Muslim Brotherhood."

On changes in Obama's foreign policy in the next two years

"I do think Obama himself has reached a point in his presidency where his early tilt toward a realist foreign policy has reached the limits of its success; in other words, I think there was something that made sense about a very realist foreign policy in the first year or two given the state of the world, given the economic situation of the United States — that the first two years had to be about rebuilding our economy, rebuilding our reputation, rebuilding our strength in the world. Because no country that is weak can spread its ideals. So if you're an idealist, what you wanted in those first two years was to rebuild all of those things, and I think that required a certain amount of realism. The hinge of the story of his first term will be the uprising in the Middle East that will allow our foreign policy, to allow our interests and our values to align in a region where they have not been aligned for a very long time."

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