TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: I think if you asked him, President Obama would say he has spent more time on foreign affairs this year than he would have liked. Certainly more money, given his domestic agenda. Writing in Foreign Policy Magazine this month, Walter Russell Mead looks back at a year of the costs and the benefits of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Welcome to the program.
Walter Russell Mead: It’s great to be here.
Ryssdal: Is there a way that President Obama can turn American foreign policy to his domestic economic advantage?
Mead: It’s going to be tricky. I mean, the world is a complicated place and the situation right now is particularly bad. But he does have some opportunities. His vision, I think, is to try to find alternative approaches to American security that would involve less U.S. expense, cost and risk.
So, he’s trying in Iraq, and I think ultimately in Afghanistan, to turn the security issues over to the people there. He’s trying with Russia to build a new kind of relationship that’s less confrontational, he’s trying to avoid what would obviously be a very expensive and also economically risky war with Iran by proceeding with, a sort of, this policy of at least attempting engagement. Now if all of that were pay off, and if other countries were to sort of cooperate, and Russia and China were to help him with Iran and so on, he would have found an American foreign policy that works as well or better than anything else we’re doing and that would be cheaper and less risky.
Ryssdal: There’s a countervailing theory here to your observation that his instincts are to reduce obligations overseas and concentrate on the domestic agenda at home and that is summarized, I guess you can say, in the fact that order in the world is cheaper than disorder. And that would seem to me to argue for more presence overseas, whatever the cost is.
Mead: Well, I think what it says is that even for someone like Obama, who is trying to limit costs of our overseas engagement, there’s a certain basic set of jobs that you have to do. The kind of isolationism that you heard about in the 1920s and 30s, when people thought that the United States should just turn its back on the whole world — that is obviously not an option for us today.
Ryssdal: You spend a lot of time talking about the decision that the president made to increase our presence in Afghanistan and the long debate that he had with his policy advisers over whether to do that. Do you think at any point, in those discussions in the White House Situation Room, in the back of his mind was “You know, this is going to be ridiculously expensive and we’re not going to be able to do XYZ at home,” whether it’s this kind of health care or that kind of tax credit or whatever?
Mead: I think he had to be thinking about some of the comparisons say, with Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society and the war in Vietnam. Johnson once said in that very memorable way he had, “If I leave the girl I really love, the Great Society, and I go with this bitch of a war, I’m going to lose everything. And yet I don’t have any choice.”
Ryssdal: The point you come to at the end of this piece in Foreign Policy Magazine is that Mr. Obama risks very much having his presidency turn into a later version of that of Jimmy Carter, which no matter how you slice it, is not a compliment.
Mead: No, it’s not. Obama still is in this position of trying to tone down the focus on terrorism. Jimmy Carter came into office and said the Cold War is too much of an obsession. We have to really get beyond that, we can’t let that be the center of our foreign policy anymore. Carter not only ended up looking sort of weak and naive, but he ended up having to do exactly the opposite of what he came into office hoping to do. He ended his administration with a military build up in progress and tensions very high with the Soviet Union. Now you can easily see Obama get in a similar situation with the war on terror.
Ryssdal: Walter Russell Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes about the Obama presidency and its foreign policy in the current edition of Foreign Policy Magazine. Walter Russell Mead, thanks so much for you time.
Mead: Thank you.
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