Like all broad categorizations, of course, there are exceptions. For one thing, minimalist presidents aren’t necessarily pacifists. George H.W. Bush fought a land war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (although he stopped short of marching to Baghdad, as his maximalist son did). Obama bombed Libya and escalated the U.S. drone war against al-Qaida and its allies, even as he has stuck to his deadlines for withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And some presidents straddle both camps. Clinton began as a minimalist, backing away from entanglement in Bosnia and elsewhere. He soon discovered that U.S. airstrikes could accomplish what persuasion could not, and he became a proponent of what he called “diplomacy backed by force.”
The problem with retrenchers, Sestanovich writes, is that like maximalists, they sometimes overdo it. They back away from confrontation one time too many. They talk so much about reducing the U.S. footprint around the world that allies worry about abandonment and enemies may be emboldened.
Obama has that problem in the Middle East, where his fervor to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan and to deal with Iran through diplomacy has led leaders in Saudi Arabia and Israel to near-panic. Obama has steadfastly stuck to his intention to end old wars and avoid new ones, and to find cheaper ways to pursue U.S. interests abroad. “I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means or our interests,” he said in his 2009 speech announcing a timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan. “We must rebuild our strength here at home.”
But all that minimalism creates a problem, Sestanovich warns: A policy based on self-restraint and fewer troops overseas can make it harder to fashion a quick, effective response when something goes wrong. “Obama’s challenge was the same faced by any president who presides over the pullback of American power: how to downsize foreign policy while retaining the ability to act decisively,” he writes.