The Costanza Approach
In a famous episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza concludes that every instinct he’s had, every decision he’s made, has been wrong and that he should henceforth do the opposite of what he had routinely been doing. He implements this new philosophy and promptly manages to entice an attractive woman to go out with him by introducing himself as unemployed and living with his parents. He then gets a job with the New York Yankees by telling off its imperious and temperamental owner, George Steinbrenner.
We’ve long thought President Obama should adopt the Costanza approach in matters of national security and simply do the opposite of what his instincts tell him to do, since his policies toward Iran, Israel, ISIS, Russia, and others seem textbook studies of how not to conduct foreign policy. But Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent Atlantic article, “The Obama Doctrine,” relating a series of interviews with the president, makes it clear that a form of “Oppositism” or “Antitheticalism” (if you will permit a slight butchering of the English language) already defines Obama’s foreign policy. For Obama’s foreign policy is less about what he stands for than what he rejects-namely, much of what America has stood for and done over many decades. Obama’s doctrine, such as it is, consists of a few simplistic ideas that emerge from a shallow and ideological disdain for the American past. It marks a radical departure from the outlook of every recent American president, Democrat and Republican.
In December 2013, after the president had announced the interim nuclear agreement that paved the way for last July’s Iran deal, we compared Obama to Clement Attlee, the British Labour party leader and prime minister following World War II. Attlee believed that the history of British foreign policy constituted a “mess of centuries.” He thought a new era had dawned, in which guidelines derived from a study of history no longer applied and the old power politics were anachronistic. Attlee quickly sought to move beyond the “mess of centuries” by putting most of his faith in the new United Nations while withdrawing troops precipitously and pell-mell from much of the world.
The Goldberg article makes abundantly clear that Obama is following in Attlee’s footsteps. Consider this passage from Obama: “We have history. We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be a mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”
Obama has always betrayed a slim and selective knowledge of American history, but what he does know, or thinks he knows, involves American sins abroad. In his view, American foreign policy for decades has been too aggressive and militaristic and has been on what he considers the wrong side of history, whether in overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran in the 1950s, waging war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, or intervening in Iraq in the 2000s. American foreign policy has been, Obama thinks, counterproductive to U.S. interests and bad for the world. And it has created unnecessary suspicions and enemies.
And so President Obama has sought from the very beginning to reverse many aspects of American foreign policy. He believes it vital that we seek to reassure enemies (made, as he sees it, unnecessarily), while focusing almost exclusively on diplomacy, without resort to threats such as sanctions and military action. The key is to reassure enemies: With Russia that meant a “reset”; in South America it meant reaching out to leftist thug regimes in Venezuela and Cuba; and in the Middle East it meant embracing radical Shiite and Sunni Muslim regimes, whether the Erdogan government in Turkey or its sister Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt headed by Mohamed Morsi or the Khamenei regime in Iran. It has meant a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq and virtual withdrawal after a brief intervention in Libya.
The flip side of this has been Obama’s disregard of America’s traditional allies, about not one of whom he has a kind word to say. The Europeans and Arabs are “free riders,” the Sunni Arabs help foment anti-American terrorism and can’t get their own houses in order, a former French prime minister is a braggart, the British prime minister David Cameron became distracted after the Libyan war, the Israeli prime minister was condescending in trying to explain Israel’s strategic challenges to a man who rose up from humble roots to become president, and indeed he no longer likes the demagogic Turkish leader Erdogan (whose country is, if not exactly an ally, a NATO member).
Obama’s policy toward Iran is fundamental to his radical approach. For decades, American policy toward the Middle East was founded on three main principles: the security of Israel; the secure flow of oil from the Persian Gulf and support for those key oil-producing Arab regimes; and weakening if not defeating radical Islam. An assertive Islamic Republic of Iran stood in the way of all these strategic objectives. So President Obama reversed course and sought to reassure Iran at the expense of our traditional allies. He sought daylight from Israel and expressed initial support for uprisings in Arab countries that had been aligned with us while opposing the mass antiregime demonstrations in Tehran. As he explained to Goldberg, he wanted Saudi Arabia and Iran “to share the neighborhood,” which would suggest an effectively neutral U.S. approach.
Most of all, he sought a deal with Iran, without consultation with our traditional allies who were most threatened by a stronger Iran on a path to nuclear weapons. Obama’s announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and its implementation were telling. When he unveiled the deal last July, Obama declared in his very first sentence that the United States with its partners “achieved something that decades of animosity has not”-apparently ascribing as much blame to the United States and his own predecessors as to the Iranian regime.
The one enemy of the United States that Obama is willing to portray negatively is Vladimir Putin, but this appears more the disappointment of a scorned supplicant than a genuine dislike of a foe of the United States. So Obama emphasizes about Putin, “You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.” Summit agenda-setting is, it seems, the key exercise of global power in this new age: “The fact is, there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results.” Ceremonial summits are the key battlegrounds in Obama’s mind.
Deploying military power, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness: “The notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before [Putin] had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally.” Of course, that Russian display of “weakness” helped save Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and strengthened it at the expense of opposition forces we supposedly supported, while making Moscow the go-to player in the region at our expense.
In the Goldberg article and elsewhere, Obama calls himself a “realist.” But is it realistic to eschew considerations of strategy and power? Obama thinks so. Thus in 2009 at the U.N., he declared, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.”
And so when Obama says that Iran should get an equal share of regional influence, he sees no need for a strategy to ensure Iran doesn’t become the predominant regional power. A true realist would note that Iranian ascendancy comes at the expense of the United States and would focus on how to check Iranian expansion in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere. A true realist wouldn’t invoke some meaningless “sharing” but would work on pushing Iran back to ensure greater regional stability, the security of our allies, and a restoration of American credibility. But that would require serious deliberation and the study of history.
When Winston Churchill returned to power by defeating Attlee and Labour in 1951, he managed to restore some measure of Britain’s world position, through reversing Attlee’s anti-Israel policy, restoring closer ties with the United States, and making Britain a nuclear power. But the damage of the Attlee years was essentially done, and the decline in British power was anyway probably irreversible. But at least-and Churchill saw and encouraged this-the United States was there to take the baton from Britain, to check the Soviet Union, and to help construct a liberal world order.
The bad news is that unlike Britain in 1951, there is no other nation to whom America could hand the baton. The good news is that, unlike Britain in 1951, our time need not be past. We can restore our world position-though it will not be easy, after the damage that Obama has wrought. It will take a president inspired by Winston Churchill rather than Clement Attlee-or at least one attentive to the lessons of George Costanza, and determined to do the opposite of what Barack Obama has done.
Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on April 1, 2016.