As Murray Rothbard often emphasized, the free market and a peaceful foreign policy are indispensable partners. We cannot maintain a free market if the government engages in a bellicose foreign policy. A powerful and aggressive state constantly engaged in war requires vast resources to sustain it, and “military socialism” is an all-too-present reality.
From this perspective, a recent interview of Andrew Bacevich and John Mearsheimer on Obama’s Legacy is disheartening. Both Bacevich and Mearsheimer are leading foreign policy scholars: Bacevich, a retired Army lieutenant- colonel, has been a trenchant critic of the militarization of American foreign policy, and Mearsheimer is the leading theorist of “realism,” a view that challenges ideological crusading and favors strictly limiting foreign policy goals to the national interest.
Obama entered office as a critic of American foreign policy, but he soon disappointed the expectations of those who hoped for fundamental change. Mearsheimer says,”what disappoints me about Obama is that, when he came into office, he gave the impression he was going to reduce America’s global commitments, in the sense that he was going to wind down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and greatly reduce our footprint in the Middle East.”
Obama in fact proved to be an interventionist. Bacevich summarizes the record in this way ”I think the place to begin is to remember that Barack Obama made two promises. The first promise was to end the Iraq War, which he dismissed as ‘the stupid war,’ and the second promise was to win the Afghanistan War, which he described as ‘the necessary war.’ Lo and behold, here we are eight years later and he has been unable to deliver on either promise.”
Bacevich considers in more detail the failures of Obama’s Afghanistan policy: “Let’s look at Afghanistan in particular. [Obama] comes in and says he’s going to win the war, fires the general in charge of Afghanistan, and, to great applause, picks Stanley McChrystal to command the war there. McChrystal comes up with what he says is going to be a war-winning strategy, that is to say applying to Afghanistan the counter-insurgency techniques that David Petraeus applied to Iraq, supposedly successfully. I don’t think it worked particularly well in Iraq, but it certainly didn’t work in Afghanistan. By the fall of 2010, it was pretty apparent that U.S. military leadership didn’t know how to win the war in Afghanistan, and Obama found himself stuck with a war that he inherited and that nobody now knows how to end. John [Mearsheimer]or I might say that the courageous decision would have been to pull the plug, but that’s not what he did, and so here we are, with the war in its sixteenth year with no end in sight.”
Unfortunately, as Mearsheimer notes, Obama’s mistakes are not limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has contributed substantially to destabilizing the entire Middle East, and interventionism is once more to blame.”Just to focus on the Middle East, . . .I think it is quite clear that, except for the Iran nuclear deal, under President Obama we have helped create a zone of disaster in that region of the world. Obama is principally responsible for getting the United States involved in Syria—although we didn’t use military force there, we have played a key role in the effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, which has failed and has created a disastrous situation. We also played a key role in bringing down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and helped turn that country into the Wild West.”
The situation in Europe is no better. Obama continued the anti-Russian policy of previous administrations, ignoring the fact that Communism and the Cold War ended long ago. The challenge to Russia provoked Putin to moves against the Crimea and Ukraine; and, despite the American role in putting Russia on the defensive, Putin’s actions were used to justify further American intervention. Mearsheimer remarks, “I believe that the Obama administration is principally responsible for the mess that we’re now in regarding Russia, which is mainly about Ukraine. I believe the Obama administration was asleep at the switch, not paying attention to what NATO and EU expansion—and promoting democracy in places like Ukraine and Georgia—meant to the Russians. The end result of our unrelenting policy to try and make Ukraine and Georgia part of the West is that we caused a major crisis with Russia, which is not in the American national interest. It would make much more sense, from our perspective, if we had good relations with the Russians; but of course we don’t, and I think the principal reason is because of the West’s foreign policy—and the main force driver there has been the United States.”
Bacevich stresses the continuity with the past of Obama’s anti-Russian foreign policy. “The problem predates Obama and also predated George W. Bush. If we take the example of EU and NATO expansion, that’s a program that began soon after the Cold War ended. I think it’s very true that the Obama administration failed utterly to appreciate the extent to which this eastward expansion of Western institutions would elicit a hostile Russian response. But they were certainly not the only administration to misread the implications.”
The sad record of foreign policy under Obama raises a fundamental question. If Obama entered office as a reformer, why did fail to bring about fundamental change? Mearsheimer blames the foreign policy establishment: ”But the problem he faced was that the foreign policy establishment is so deeply committed to an expansive foreign policy where we run around the world interfering in every country’s business and trying to do regime change here, there, and everywhere, that it’s very difficult for him—even though he was President—to change course and adopt a fundamentally different foreign policy. I think Obama understood, pretty early in his presidency, that the status quo was not the best way forward with regard to foreign policy. But there was very little he could do, because he was surrounded by people—inside and outside of his administration—who were deeply committed to a foreign policy that might be called ‘liberal imperialism.’”
Bacevich draws an apt parallel between Obama’s inability to act on his criticisms of American policy and President Eisenhower’s famous Farewell Address. “Ike serves as president for eight years, and then a few days before he’s going to leave office he goes on TV and announces to the American people that there’s this thing called the ’Military-Industrial Complex,’ and it’s really bad and really dangerous. You might ask Ike, ‘why’d you wait until you’re leaving office to tell us?’”
Unfortunately, despite the cogent critique Bacevich and Mearsheimer offer, neither qualifies as a full-fledged non-interventionist. They believe that undue involvement in the Middle East and Eastern Europe has Impeded America from confronting the rising power of China. Why such confrontation with a country that poses no challenge to American interests they do not bother to explain, unless a dominant presence in East Asia is somehow essential to our security,.. Despite this failing, though, Bacevich and Mearsheimer have presented a clear and cogent analysis of Obama’s foreign policy.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.