The “No Drama” Foreign Policy

I find myself pretty strongly disagreeing with the Scottish government’s release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi. But David Frum’s post on the matter reminds me of one of the things I most appreciate about Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy:

Of course, there’s a more likely explanation for the lack of outcry: this administration’s lack of moral center on terrorism. Whether it is his gentle reproofs of Ahmadinejad or his readiness to shake hands with Hugo Chavez, Barack Obama just does not get all that excited about international bad actors. Not that the president never gets angry. He can get plenty angry over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates or Israeli settlements. Lockerbie: not so much.

To me what’s going on here is that Barack Obama tries to make policy according to what Weber called an “ethic of responsibility.” He’s the President of the United States. He wields a mighty and awesome degree of power. But he’s not omnipotent. So he’s resolved to try to use his power on the world stage in ways that make things better. Refusing to shake hands with Hugo Chavez doesn’t help anyone or improve anything. Talking with the UK government in advance about our objections to releasing a Lockerbie bomber might achieve something. But loudly denouncing them ex post facto isn’t going to help anyone or improve anything. By contrast, getting mad at Israel about settlements really might accomplish something — the US-Israeli relationship is completely different from the US-Iranian relationship and “this thing we’re doing is pissing off the president” could realistically be a factor in Israeli decision-making.

The Skip Gates episode is an interesting example. I think the way to think about this is that it pushed Obama’s personal buttons in a way that made him forget his sound approach to these things. On Gates, he acted the way Frum and other neocons want him to act all the time — embracing an ethic of ultimate ends in which the most important thing is to align his expression of his sentiments with transcendent moral values. The fact that wading into the controversy wouldn’t accomplish anything was set aside. But, in fact, the intervention only made things worse and Obama wisely moved to try to reverse himself and smooth things out.


The point either way is that venting outrage is a job for a columnist or a blogger. A president needs to manage real-world situations with attention to the consequences for people’s lives.