Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Is Barack Obama a Grand Strategist of the Very First Rank?

 

Barack_Obama_takes_one_last_look_in_the_mirror_before_going_out_to_take_oath_Jan._20_2009-960x686In The American Conservative, Alfred W. McCoy — Harrington Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, and co-editor of Endless Empire: Europe’s Eclipse, Spain’s Retreat, America’s Declineargues that this is so, and this is how he begins:

In ways that have eluded Washington pundits and policymakers, President Barack Obama is deploying a subtle geopolitical strategy that, if successful, might give Washington a fighting chance to extend its global hegemony deep into the 21st century. After six years of silent, sometimes secret preparations, the Obama White House has recently unveiled some bold diplomatic initiatives whose sum is nothing less than a tri-continental strategy to check Beijing’s rise. As these moves unfold, Obama is revealing himself as one of those rare grandmasters who appear every generation or two with an ability to go beyond mere foreign policy and play that ruthless global game called geopolitics.

Since he took office in 2009, Obama has faced an unremitting chorus of criticism, left and right, domestic and foreign, dismissing him as hapless, even hopeless. “He’s a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality,” said Venezuela’s leftist president Hugo Chavez, just months after Obama’s inauguration. “I think he has projected a position of weakness and… a lack of leadership,” claimed Republican Sen. John McCain in 2012. “After six years,” opined a commentator from the conservative Heritage Foundation last April, “he still displays a troubling misunderstanding of power and the leadership role the United States plays in the international system.” Even former Democratic President Jimmy Carter recently dismissed Obama’s foreign policy achievements as “minimal.” Voicing the views of many Americans, Donald Trump derided his global vision this way: “We have a president who doesn’t have a clue.”

But let’s give credit where it’s due. Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as “triangulation,” “the Nixon Doctrine,” or even a “freedom agenda,” Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America’s fading global influence.

I am inclined to think that McCoy must have been smoking some dope laced with acid, but you may think otherwise. You should read his argument and respond.

There are 80 comments.

  1. Metalheaddoc Member

    He is just so clever that nobody can see it. His long career of community organizing, Chicago local politics, law professorizing and memoir writing/fabrication has prepared him to be at the pinnacle of global geopolitical strategerizing. He is so awesome that people who have devoted their entire careers, sometimes longer than Obama has been alive, can’t see the awesomeness.

    Of course, this is indistinguishable from the amorphous, diaphanous mist of incompetence. It’s just that subtle and nuanced.

    You’re not allowed to think outside the box until you have mastered everything inside the box. Otherwise, outside the box thinking is indistinguishable from bat-poop crazy.

    • #1
    • December 18, 2015, at 5:29 PM PST
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  2. Western Chauvinist Member

    Rather than slogging my way through the whole thing, would someone just provide a summary of the “bold diplomatic initiatives” leading to a tri-continental check on the rise of Beijing? Anyone? Bueller?

    • #2
    • December 18, 2015, at 5:36 PM PST
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  3. Profile Photo Member

    I’m inclined to think that anyone who has praise for Zbigniew Brzezinki’s diplomatic “prowess,” or writes a lot for a site supported by The Nation, should have their rose-colored glasses checked on more than a regular basis.

    OTOH, this nation has made more than a few decisions that, in retrospect, were quite counterproductive. One of those was an indecision of sorts: The inability to treat crude oil in a strategic manner the same way we treat raw agricultural products. This nation made a asinine decision back in the 1970s to forbid the export of crude oil. That decision, and the ensuing price premium to world crude prices, caused an atrophying of the crude oil business in this country.

    Now, thanks to both high prices earlier in the decade and the technological advances associated with fracking, this nation is reversing that crude oil export ban. It may be one of Obama’s lasting gifts to this nation, if he has the sense to grasp the importance of it and has the ability to put away ideological preferences for one minute (yeah, I know).

    • #3
    • December 18, 2015, at 5:39 PM PST
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  4. blank generation member Inactive

    I can’t really speak to his argument, but I am reminded how in Victor Klemperer’s diaries he would bring up how academics would tailor their work to the prevailing political winds.

    • #4
    • December 18, 2015, at 5:54 PM PST
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  5. Arahant Member

    Paul A. Rahe: I am inclined to think that McCoy must have been smoking some dope laced with acid, but you may think otherwise.

    My first reaction was similar: I know that recreational use of cannabis has been legalized in some jurisdictions, but that does not mean that it mixes well with scholarship.

    • #5
    • December 18, 2015, at 6:18 PM PST
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  6. Douglas Inactive

    First off, there’s often little conservative about The American Conservative. No branch or tradition of conservatism is extolled there. It’s not conservative by old Tory standards, it’s not conservative by the standards of the old American Right, and it’s not conservative by the standards of the modern American Right. It’s “conservative” by the standards of people that argue progressivism is really a form of conservatism, and that Barack Obama is the most conservative president in generations. Mainly because he dislikes Israel as much as writers at AmCon do. The only virtues of the place anymore are admonishments to mind our own business and to be distrustful of the GOP.

    While I’m sympathetic to much that Pat Buchanan argues, when he created that magazine, he surrounded himself with a bunch of nonsense-peddlers. They occasionally have the excellent article, but mostly are swamped by the nonsense these days.

    So, the assertion in the article… that Obama is some kind of uber-wise, next level grandmaster at 3D chess really isn’t surprising. It’s right in keeping with the kind of stuff AmCon prints lately. The key to understanding most positions AmCon writers will take is “if it screws Israel, praise it, if it helps Israel, damn it”.

    • #6
    • December 18, 2015, at 6:27 PM PST
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  7. derek Member

    Ctrl F Reagan. Not found.
    Ctrl F islam. Brzezinki’s brilliant policy of arousing islam which defeated Russia in Afghanistan and split off much of the Soviet Union. Oh and led to 9/11.
    Refugee crisis. Not found.

    Cuba, Burma and Iran, as well as the TPP as a masterstroke isolating China.

    If you get to a high enough altitude where the reality of the refugee crisis, the utter failure of the Arab Spring, the potential Chinese control of the shipping lanes that are the expression of the TPP, the arming of Iran, Europe, it all looks quite remarkable.

    No, he is as his policies result in, and the final butchers bill isn’t in yet. He, Obama is a vacuous twit, a profoundly arrogant and misguided one. This hagiography will be part of the Obama hall of shame, one of many of the attempts to try to deflect attention away from a failed presidency.

    Cuba, Burma and the deal with Iran, seriously? These are sure signs of a master strategist? Whoever this is has demeaned himself. I wonder sometimes whether Obama is in fact the smartest in the room. I hope we survive his brilliance.

    • #7
    • December 18, 2015, at 6:42 PM PST
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  8. Front Seat Cat Member

    If this is a slight of hand on a grand scale, I want to see someone peal back the onion layers and “splain”? Because I see extensively costly damage on a grand scale, enormous loss of life due to a lax foreign policy and a bigger, scarier picture with the American dream not part of it. In fact I see the opposite – a grand plan of a different sort ..Claire – where are you?

    • #8
    • December 18, 2015, at 6:48 PM PST
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  9. James Lileks Contributor

    blank generation member: I am reminded how in Victor Klemperer’s diaries he would bring up how academics would tailor their work to the prevailing political winds.

    Ah! Someone else who read those. What a harrowing story. A remarkable series of books.

    • #9
    • December 18, 2015, at 6:51 PM PST
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  10. Miffed White Male Member

    Is Barack Obama a grand strategist of the very first rank?

    No.

    Next question.

    • #10
    • December 18, 2015, at 8:09 PM PST
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  11. Percival Thatcher

    David St. Hubbins: It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh…
    Nigel Tufnel: Clever.
    David St. Hubbins: Clever.

    – This is Spinal Tap

    • #11
    • December 18, 2015, at 8:49 PM PST
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  12. Hoyacon Member

    Prof. McCoy’s area of expertise is the Philippines. Hearing him expound on diplomacy and China sounds quite a bit like mission creep. Or perhaps it’s just de rigueur for the Madison community.

    • #12
    • December 18, 2015, at 9:48 PM PST
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  13. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    The American Conservative is neither.

    • #13
    • December 18, 2015, at 10:04 PM PST
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  14. Valiuth Member

    Ha! I love that the author admits the subtlety of his argument is such that no one else has seen it. This is why political science is an oxymoron. Simply put the man at best has a hypothesis, whose fruits will be borne out by time. Though given the tenuous nature of causality in history I am inclined to laugh rather than nod my head in approval. Just because an event precedes another does not mean it causes it.

    Frankly considering how nothing yet has happened this man’s theory seems like declaring yourself rich just because you bought a lottery ticket.

    • #14
    • December 18, 2015, at 10:12 PM PST
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  15. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Front Seat Cat:If this is a slight of hand on a grand scale, I want to see someone peal back the onion layers and “splain”? Because I see extensively costly damage on a grand scale, enormous loss of life due to a lax foreign policy and a bigger, scarier picture with the American dream not part of it. In fact I see the opposite – a grand plan of a different sort ..Claire – where are you?

    I’m here. I don’t think his arguments are very compelling. I do support the TTIP and think it both economically and strategically wise; likewise the opening to Burma. But moving one pawn on the board in a sensible way doesn’t mean he has a grand strategy.

    • #15
    • December 18, 2015, at 10:30 PM PST
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  16. profdlp Inactive

    Hoyacon:Prof. McCoy’s area of expertise is the Philippines. Hearing him expound on diplomacy and China sounds quite a bit like mission creep…

    If his mission is to prop up a creep, then yeah.

    • #16
    • December 19, 2015, at 12:59 AM PST
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  17. Stephen Bishop Inactive

    He’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

    • #17
    • December 19, 2015, at 1:03 AM PST
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  18. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive

    Paul A. Rahe: I am inclined to think that McCoy must have been smoking some dope laced with acid, but you may think otherwise. You should read his argument and respond.

    Life’s too short.

    • #18
    • December 19, 2015, at 2:30 AM PST
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  19. Marion Evans Inactive

    I do think that Obama is very smart and not always open about his strategy and objectives. So I would not dismiss this thesis offhand.

    • #19
    • December 19, 2015, at 2:58 AM PST
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  20. aardo vozz Member

    I read the whole article. I now eagerly await Professor McCoy’s articles regarding the subtle domestic policy grand strategy of President James Buchanan, the subtle soft power grand strategy of Genghis Khan, and the truly subtle pro-Israel grand strategy of Hamas.

    <sarcasm off><cynicism always on>

    • #20
    • December 19, 2015, at 3:29 AM PST
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  21. Scott Wilmot Member

    The only grand strategy Barack Hussein Obama has is to fundamentally transform destroy America, and it seems he is well on his way to fulfillment.

    • #21
    • December 19, 2015, at 3:33 AM PST
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  22. I Walton Member

    I’ve heard this from some liberals for quite some time, so it’s put out by the Obama White House or some front. The author may be a pimp rather than misguided strategist, or just someone who shares Obama’s anti colonial neo-marxism, if that is what it is. It suggests that while the ineptitude and corruption visible in everything else, repeat, everything, the oil spill, web site role out, Veterans hospitals’ mismanagement, infrastructure expenditure, Arab spring, not to mention the economy, government waste, the environment, alternative energy development, it can deal with the whole world including the insanity in the M.E. Russia and China, because he is the only one who understands that American power was the problem and he knows how to manage all these other pieces. There is some truth to be brought out however. The world is not as manageable as we deceive ourselves that it is. It is a chaotic system that is beyond anyone’s control or management, including that of a narcissistic political hack ideologue. But it is so chaotic that with simple rules order can emerge. People like Kissinger and Kagan bring some of this understanding to global issues. Obama? If Obama believes the world is a chaotic system he’d support free market economics. He doesn’t. He sees it, at best in some neo marxist adolescent dream in which he is a key player. Bresenski thought himself a grand strategist, but how did that work out?

    • #22
    • December 19, 2015, at 3:36 AM PST
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  23. I Walton Member

    I Walton:I’ve heard this from some liberals for quite some time, so it’s put out by the Obama White House or some front. The author may be a pimp rather than misguided strategist, or just someone who shares Obama’s anti colonial neo-marxism, if that is what it is. It suggests that while the ineptitude and corruption visible in everything else, repeat, everything, the oil spill, web site role out, Veterans hospitals’ mismanagement, infrastructure expenditure, Arab spring, not to mention the economy, government waste, the environment, alternative energy development, it can deal with the whole world including the insanity in the M.E. Russia and China, because he is the only one who understands that American power was the problem and he knows how to manage all these other pieces. There is some truth to be brought out however. The world is not as manageable as we deceive ourselves that it is. It is a chaotic system that is beyond anyone’s control or management, including that of a narcissistic political hack ideologue. But it is so chaotic that with simple rules order can emerge. People like Kissinger and Kagan bring some of this understanding to global issues. Obama? If Obama believed the world a chaotic system he’d support free market economics. He doesn’t. He sees it, at best, in some neo marxist adolescent dream in which he is a key player. Bresenski thought himself a grand strategist, but how did that work out?

    • #23
    • December 19, 2015, at 3:38 AM PST
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  24. I Walton Member

    Sometimes if I edit the original comment is repeated. What am I doing wrong?

    • #24
    • December 19, 2015, at 4:17 AM PST
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  25. Larry3435 Member

    Western Chauvinist:Rather than slogging my way through the whole thing, would someone just provide a summary of the “bold diplomatic initiatives” leading to a tri-continental check on the rise of Beijing? Anyone? Bueller?

    Trade deals, plus abandoning any projection of military power which is bound to make us popular around the world. We can already see how well that is working out.

    • #25
    • December 19, 2015, at 4:25 AM PST
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  26. Robert McReynolds Inactive

    Western Chauvinist:Rather than slogging my way through the whole thing, would someone just provide a summary of the “bold diplomatic initiatives” leading to a tri-continental check on the rise of Beijing? Anyone? Bueller?

    Yeah, I slogged through the important parts.

    First, Obama corrected Cold War mistakes like using Burma as a staging ground in 1951 to take on the Communist Chinese, overthrowing Mossedeq, and being bent out of shape that Castro was actually a Commie.

    Second, he is hoping to use all of the hard currency that China has poured into the developed world to lay the groundwork for the US to sweep in and be the hero once China’s economy goes belly up. After all, that hard currency is US dollars, so we already have our face on the most important propaganda posters.

    Finally, TTIP and TTP are going to seek to tie the EU and the Pacific Rim (respectively) to the US economically and pull these regions away from China. China has been attempting to set up a “global island” between Eurasia and Africa, and Obama has had the foresight to construct trade deals that will dismantle that.

    Here’s where I find this piece–interesting as it may be–all wet. Nobody really cares about Burma, he is giving the green light to Iran getting nuclear weapons, and Cuba is so backwards that it really doesn’t matter if it is closed off from us economically and diplomatically now anyway.

    Continued….

    • #26
    • December 19, 2015, at 4:27 AM PST
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  27. Robert McReynolds Inactive

    Answer for WC

    Moving on to China, Obama’s plan according to this piece is brilliant considering China’s economic slow down. As China begins to feel the squeeze of not being able to dump large amounts of money in to these undeveloped areas, the US will likely see a void and try to fill it. Here’s the problem though as I see it. First, China’s economic slowdown has nothing to do with anything Obama did or is doing. Second, with what are we going to use to fill that void? Obama has doubled our entire national debt in his 8 years. Doubled!! We are in the midst of seeing interest rates rise which means our servicing of that debt is going to get expensive. Are we going to continue to borrow, print, and otherwise steal to fill that void monetarily?

    • #27
    • December 19, 2015, at 4:34 AM PST
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  28. Robert McReynolds Inactive

    Continued for WC

    Finally, the trade deals are a hope at best. Yes, they do tie these nations to the US in terms of trade partnerships. But let’s take a look at the list of some of these trade partners we are getting: Mexico (don’t we already have a trade deal with them called NAFTA), Canada (see previous), Chile, Japan (I am sure we have trade deals with them as well), Malaysia, Australia, Vietnam, and four other countries the author did not bother to list. What exactly will we be getting in return from the states that we either are not already getting or that will offset what they are getting from us?

    • #28
    • December 19, 2015, at 4:34 AM PST
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  29. Robert McReynolds Inactive

    My reading of this piece–and again I find it very fascinating–is more or less that Obama is not playing the game of geopolitics very well if you are expecting the game to be played where the end result is the US retaining or increasing its prestige. Let’s look at Iran for instance. What has it taken to correct the “mistake” of overthrowing Mossedeq? Iran’s rise in the Middle East as a major power has completely destabilized the region because the Gulf Arab states are now seeking some sort of foil to that rise in regional power. They are basically playing the old balance of power game in the region. Along with that there is the rise of ISIL through Iran’s covert ruling of Iraq under the Maliki regime that caused such a fissure between the Shia and Sunni of Iraq. Couple this with the void of force left by our complete withdrawal and there isn’t enough special operators or drone strikes to solve this issue, and today’s events in the region make that plain as day.

    On the trade issues, I will just let the author speak for himself:

    By transferring control over consumer safety, the environment, and labor from democratic states to closed, pro-business arbitration tribunalsargues a coalition of 170 European civil society groups, the TTIP, like its Pacific counterpart, will exact a high social cost from participating countries.

    Emphasis added.

    • #29
    • December 19, 2015, at 4:42 AM PST
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  30. Randy Webster Member

    derek: Ctrl F Reagan. Not found. Ctrl F islam. Brzezinki’s brilliant policy of arousing islam which defeated Russia in Afghanistan and split off much of the Soviet Union. Oh and led to 9/11. Refugee crisis. Not found.

    When I press Ctrl F nothing happens. Care to explain?

    • #30
    • December 19, 2015, at 4:52 AM PST
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