Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt and Obama

And so Mubarak is done.

How has Barack Obama done during this major foreign policy challenge? I don't know, and you don't know, and the people talking about it on TV and in the blogs don't know; too much of what's happened (and what may have happened) is behind the scenes. Not just what Obama and the Americans are doing, but it's going to take some time for us to really know what many of the key Egyptians have been up to. If I had to guess, at this point, I'd say that at the very least he's avoided any significant egregious blunders, but even that is extremely provisional. We won't be able to really say much for a while.

In the meantime, I want to steer you to some very useful analysis of the presidency in foreign affairs from political scientists. Over at the Monkey Cage, read two excellent posts from Elizabeth Saunders (first one, second one), who studies the ways that presidents personally make a difference in foreign policy. And I also highly recommend a post by presidential scholar Matthew Dickinson, who emphasizes the constraints presidents work under in foreign and security issues. For those interested in more, read a journal article by Saunders on JFK and LBJ in Vietnam.

The one addition I'd make is about party, which doesn't figure prominently into any of those pieces. Remember, if we're to say that presidents are personally influential, that means that they are making decisions, not just following the lead of the permanent government bureaucracy (whether that's found at State, the Pentagon, or other agencies) -- or of other actors. The era of JFK and LBJ is one of a very personal presidency, and a continuing, nonpartisan national security and foreign affairs establishment. Barack Obama's presidency is, as all presidencies since Ronald Reagan's have been, much more partisan. Of course, the parties themselves may not be monolithic: George W. Bush's Republicans had their Wilsonian neocons and their realists, and Obama's Democrats have their own splits. It's often possible to spot, at least, who the players are, as Matt Yglesias tries to do in this post.  But these things can get very complex very quickly: is Hillary Clinton acting on behalf of a Democratic party faction, or on behalf of the State Department bureaucracy, or what?

I do believe, as Saunders argues, that presidents can have individual influence beyond those constraints, but whether they in fact do have that sort of influence is always going to be a real question -- it's going to depend on (at least) how the president is doing in general, how much he cares about the issues at stake, and how much the other players are committed to their positions.


  1. Brief remark about my very quick skim of the very long pdf Saunders article on JFK and LBJ - VN (which I plan to read through more carefully at a later time).

    I'll stand corrected for getting anything, or everything, wrong given my hurried skim, but any recent piece on this subject which fails to account for or cite John Newman's outstanding scholarship, using then-recently released govt docs, in his 1991 book JFK and Vietnam, and which (iirc) doesn't mention James K. Galbraith's fine Boston Review article from the 1990s re JFK Withdrawing from Vietnam, nor cite and carefully evaluate JFK's NSAM 263 withdrawal plan as compared to the final draft of NSAM 273 as signed by LBJ, which subtly reversed Kennedy's withdrawal goal, such an article is less than complete to say the least.

    I also note Saunders cites people like the hawkish Leslie Gelb for an assertion about Kennedy on VN, which I would tend to take with a grain of salt, as well as McGeorge Bundy. Saunders may have written this before the recently released book by Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, which had begun as a memoir by Bundy who, alas, didn't live to finish it. Goldstein reveals, inter alia, that a) Bundy wasn't always in the loop on VN, at least in terms of Kennedy's actual thinking and plans, presumably kept out intentionally by JFK by late '63, and b) after careful consideration, Bundy concludes to Goldstein that JFK would not have escalated the war as LBJ did and in fact appears to have sought withdrawal (pls check book for nuanced Bundy remarks for complete accuracy here; I'm only working from memory).

    James Douglass in his recent outstanding book JFK and the Unspeakable also covers this ground and Kennedy's many battles with the entrenched FP bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. A very personal FP indeed, and mostly successful, often bold in the way he went against the nat'l security/MIC establishment. But with VN, he just didn't get the time to fully carry out his withdrawal plans.

    Of course LBJ's FP was personal too, often too personal in the way he considered "losing" VN to the commies as almost a threat to his manhood. Kennedy, increasingly a skeptic of Cold War platitudes, could evaluate the situation from a detached and cooly analytical perspective and always drew the line against sending in combat units; hypersensitive and unsophisticated Johnson didn't want to the "the first president to lose a war", didn't want "another Munich" and as a believer in Ike's domino theory, didn't want to have to fight the commies tomorrow in San Francisco.

  2. Obama obviously handled a very difficult situation in Egypt about as well as possible, undercuttingg Republican presidential candidates who have charged that he botched the U.S. response to a popular revolt against a key ally.


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