When it comes to predicting a President's foreign policy, there are basically two ways to go: you can look at the guy, or you can look at the world. Perspective 1--which is part biography, part psychiatry--is more fun. The problem is that very often a President's past--and even his campaign rhetoric--is not prologue. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson pledged to keep the nation out of war; in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt promised to do the same. Richard Nixon spent his career as a die-hard anticommunist, but in the White House, he opened relations with China and ushered in détente with the U.S.S.R. George W. Bush once said America shouldn't tell the world what to do.
Perspective 2 is more reliable. Instead of looking at the person and extrapolating out, you look at the world he inherits and work back in. The world deals the cards, and a President plays them as best he can.
Barack Obama starts with a bad hand. The Bush Administration didn't just preside over the creation of a financial bubble; it helped build a foreign policy bubble as well. After 9/11, it acted as if America's power were virtually unlimited: our resources were infinite; our military was unstoppable; our ideology was sweeping the world. Bush and Dick Cheney were like homeowners who took on more and more debt, certain that they could cover it because the value of their home would forever rise. They toppled regimes in two countries with little history of competent, representative government. They defined the war on terrorism so broadly that it put the U.S. in conflict not only with al-Qaeda but also with Hizballah and Hamas, with the Shi'ite theocracy in Iran and even with relatively secular autocracies like Syria's. They vowed to no longer tolerate dictatorships in the Middle East, which essentially committed the U.S. to a policy of regime change toward not only our enemies but most of our allies as well.
America's military and ideological commitments grew and grew, far beyond our capacity to carry them out. And now the power bubble has popped. Militarily, savvy and savage guerrilla movements have learned how to bleed us of money, lives and limbs. Economically, resources are scarce; it's hard to pay to transform the Middle East when we're deep in debt trying to prop up the Midwest. And ideologically, democracy no longer looks like the inevitable destination of all humankind.
In 1943, Walter Lippmann famously wrote that "foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power." By that standard, U.S. foreign policy is in Chapter 9. No matter what grand visions Obama may harbor to remake the world, the central mission of his foreign policy--at least at first--will be to get it out of the red. Call it the solvency doctrine.
The Power Deficit