NORMAN — When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, one of his selling points was the promise of a more modest foreign policy than that of his predecessor. And when Obama won re-election 16 months ago, he renewed that pledge. Drone strikes against al-Qaida would continue, and Navy visits to the South China Sea would increase, but the U.S. footprint around the world was being resolutely downsized.
Mitt Romney warned at the time that Obama wasn’t being tough enough on Vladimir Putin, but the president scoffed at the idea that Russia was a serious threat.
It’s not quite fair to accuse Obama of direct responsibility for Putin’s occupation of Crimea, as Sen. John McCain. R-Ariz., and other hawkish critics have. After all, Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, when George W. Bush was president, and no one accused Bush of excessive diffidence in defending American interests.
But it’s still worth asking: Has Obama’s downsizing of U.S. foreign policy gone too far?
Stephen Sestanovich, a former State Department official under both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, has addressed the issue in a useful new book called “Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama.”
On foreign policy, Sestanovich writes, the United States tends to swing between two kinds of presidents, “maximalists” and “retrenchers.”
The maximalists — think Reagan and George W. Bush — use U.S. power, including military power, assertively. They invade other countries. They go on the offensive against those they see as adversaries. But along the way, they inevitably make mistakes, and often leave the public financially exhausted and war weary.
That opens the way for the election of a retrencher (think Dwight D. Eisenhower after Harry Truman or George H.W. Bush after Reagan). They seek fewer and more limited military adventures. They cut defense budgets. They talk about engagement and diplomacy, not confrontation.