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Op-ed: Foreign policy challenges hover over Obama's second term

Professor John Carlson
February 14, 2013

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed by John Carlson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, a research unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and has been adapted from a longer essay he penned in Religion and Politics.

In the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Obama devoted relatively little time to international affairs. As in his second inaugural the month before, discussion of economic issues and domestic initiatives dominated much of the hour-long speech, crescendoing with a rousing appeal for new legislation to stem gun violence in the United States. But if history is a guide, no matter how much a reelected president may wish to cement his legacy by focusing on domestic matters, second terms are often consumed by significant foreign policy challenges.

So we should not be surprised if President Obama ends up spending more time addressing violence abroad than here at home. To appreciate how Obama handled the foreign policy problems of his first term – and the challenges confronting him in a second term – we need to look back to a different speech: his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize address.

Obama’s foreign policy has drawn from three different moral languages – just war, American exceptionalism and Christian realism – all articulated in his Nobel address. Their frequent compatibility helped shape Obama’s achievements, but to extend this foreign policy record he must reconcile them where they now conflict. Let’s consider them in turn.

First, he invoked “just war” language at least 18 times in his lecture. War must be waged for a just cause, as a last resort, and using proportional means. “Total wars,” by contrast, blur essential distinctions between combatant and civilian. Obama emphasized the humanitarian dimensions of using force to stop the “slaughter of civilians by their own government” in genocide or civil war: “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later,” Obama implored. Such principles aptly explain his decision to intervene militarily in Libya.

Second, the resounding vernacular of American exceptionalism also echoed throughout Oslo City Hall. As with John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” and President John F. Kennedy’s charge to “pay any price, bear any burden” for liberty’s survival, Obama extolled the nation’s important history and responsibilities. He rebuffed “reflexive suspicion” of America – a nation that “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Global order has been achieved through various U.S.-led international efforts that Obama referenced: from the League of Nations to “the Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, [and] restrict the most dangerous weapons.”

In my recent collection, "From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America," several scholars explore the religious ideas that inspired famous American covenant-makers from John Winthrop to Woodrow Wilson and John Foster Dulles (all Calvinists). We also consider how covenantal thought and providentialism have shaped different variants of American exceptionalism. Distinguished from President George W. Bush’s “exemptionism,” however, Obama’s exceptionalism conceives America as “standard bearer.” No one “can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves,” he explained. This view – what State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh calls “exemplarism” – informed Obama’s decisions to prohibit torture, reaffirm the Geneva Conventions, and direct the closure of Guantanamo Bay.

Finally, Obama borrowed from his so-called favorite philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, when he rejected the false choice between realism and idealism. The middle path of Niebuhr’s Christian realism integrates moral and political realities in decision-making. Work towards limited achievements of justice and order; avoid utopian perfectionism. According to this view, nations should incorporate ethical concerns into their national interests, as seen in Niebuhr’s support for early U.S. involvement in World War II and Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan. Both men faced down moralistic critics who opposed more war. As Obama affirmed, “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda to lay down their arms.” In his latest State of the Union (SOTU) address, Obama virtually declared victory against al Qaeda in announcing the withdrawal of remaining troops in Afghanistan by 2014.

Most presidents speak some moral-religious language, which can be an asset, liability or both (recall here George W. Bush’s foreign policy pietism). Obama’s fluency in three different languages carries its own risks, since they can’t always be spoken simultaneously. Several problems still vexing his administration suggest where these outlooks conflict.

Guantanamo Bay may blight America’s exceptional status and exemplary commitment to due process. But it was sheer utopian idealism behind Obama’s executive order to close the detention center within a year of taking office. A more clear-eyed realist would have anticipated the political obstacles to fulfilling this promise and undertaken the shrewd statecraft required to clear the remaining detainees. That GTMO received no mention in the SOTU address suggests that Obama has all but conceded defeat.

Obama’s intense reliance upon armed drones may comport with just war imperatives to precisely target combatants and minimize non-combatant deaths. But U.S. drone use is incompatible with Obama’s exemplarist principles: no one wants the rest of the world to deploy drones like we do. Counsels of ethical realism suggest that drone usage must become more transparent, and Obama’s SOTU gestured to such reforms. Without them, though, drones will become counterproductive to defeating global extremism, thereby undermining both national interests and global order.

Lastly, the success of the Libyan intervention, waged on just war grounds, has made it difficult for the president to offer a compelling rationale for U.S. inaction in Syria’s infinitely graver humanitarian crisis. Obama’s decision to override the advice of his first term cabinet officials to increase U.S. support to Syrian rebels seems neither exemplary nor in keeping with America’s commitment to freedom and global order. By underscoring intersecting concerns about order and justice, Niebuhr’s ethical approach offers an alternative to certain restrictive just war approaches and provides a more flexible, constructive path forward.

President Obama’s Nobel address remains a useful moral guide to his past foreign policy successes. Resolving the challenges of his second term, though, will require him to choose among his competing moral vocabularies. Niebuhr’s realism, attuned as it was to certain merits but also the limitations of just war and American exceptionalism, stands the best chance of translating Obama’s moral vision into an effective political agenda.

John Carlson is associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, where he is also associate professor of religious studies. He is also past president of the Niebuhr Society. His book From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America (co-edited with historian Jonathan Ebel) was published earlier this year.