Podcast • December 19, 2008

Grand Strategy: Posen on Obama

Barry Posen is a very smart, connected foreign-policy “realist” who runs the MIT Security Studies Program.  He was one of those prized 33 policy types who signed the New York Times ad in September, 2002, ...

barposBarry Posen is a very smart, connected foreign-policy “realist” who runs the MIT Security Studies Program.  He was one of those prized 33 policy types who signed the New York Times ad in September, 2002, arguing that “War with Iraq is not in America’s National Interest.”

He isn’t always right.  A little more than a year ago, he was pretty sure that Dick Cheney would get his last big wish in office, a thundering strike on Iran:  “There will probably be a series of air raids,” Barry Posen begins, that will leave the mullahs’ regime standing but lethally enraged, and will thicken the air of a universal American confrontation with Islam. And then…?  But he wasn’t so far off. “It’s going to take an accumulation of costly mistakes to turn the elite in this country toward a policy of realism and a policy of restraint,” he said to me.  Perhaps a decisive presidential election would set another direction.

Or perhaps not. Posen argued “The Case for Restraint” in The American Interest Online:

“The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other… ”  

In James Der Derian’s global security class at Brown University this month, Barry Posen read the Obama tea leaves and appointments — and judged that the President-elect may yet be in the grip of habit and sentiment in the realm of strategy:

Judging from the cast of characters and even judging from things that President-elect Obama has said himself, he’s not very far from the grand strategy consensus I described and in fact, in some ways, you could say, based on things he’s said, he’s even more energetic about certain things. And certainly some of the people he’s advised are more energetic. You know, I can find you somewhere in my briefcase…chapter and verse from say Susan Rice about the need not just to do something about Darfur, but to do very, very forward things about Darfur. Senator soon-to-be Secretary of State Clinton same. The president-elect has talked about humanitarian miliary intervention as if its something you should do. Samantha Power is a friend and advisor of his. So you could easily come to the conclusion that the change is going to be at the tactical level. The kind I talked about, you know, more emphasis on international institutions, more emphasis on diplomacy and, you know, probably more emphasis on doing something about nuclear weapons.

But if you believe that president-elect Obama does have a kind of a sense of proportion, a sense of priorities, a sense of scarcity, an ability to weigh, then I think you can look at this whole panoply of things that are there in the consensus and sort of say what’s likely to be priority and what’s likely to be second priority, right? And something’s got to give.

So my own guess is, when I take off this grand strategy prescriptive hat that I had on and try to assess what’s more likely, I think there’s a set of inter-connected issues that start in North Africa and end somewhere on the Pakistan-India border that are in some sense all have to be addressed at once and this was sort of the message of the Baker-Hamilton Commission… So if you look at all the things that need to be done there: some attention to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, attention to the Indian-Pakistani dispute, trying to get out of Iraq, trying to do something about Iran’s nuclear program, trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan because there’s a lot of loose talk about escalation but also some other talk that says maybe we better stop and think, right? And these things all have somthing to do with the other, right? So addressing all those things would be a project for an administration. Eight years, address those things. Fix one or two. Prevent the rest from going completely to hell; you’re a hero, right? So that project alone, which they’re out front on and they’re stuck with, I think is going to drive their activity.