Obama Believes in Limited Government—Beyond the Borders

The president may embrace an activist government at home, but not overseas.

Conservatives generally agree on a few propositions. The federal government should avoid spending money unnecessarily. It shouldn't exceed its basic constitutional duties. It should encourage self-reliance rather than dependency. It should accept that some problems are beyond its ability to solve.

Barack Obama, they may be surprised to learn, agrees with much of this formula. He just applies it in a realm where conservatives often don't: foreign relations and national security. The Obama doctrine, as outlined in his policies and his speech at West Point Wednesday, is one of comparatively limited government.

Limited government, however, is not something many conservatives champion when it comes to matters military. They may question whether Washington should spend billions to bring prosperity and order to Detroit or New Orleans. But they had no objection to spending billions to bring prosperity and order to Baghdad and Kabul.

In the domestic realm, they believe the federal government's powers are few and mostly modest. Beyond the water's edge, it's a different story. When George W. Bush embarked on an extravagant project to "help the Iraqi people build a lasting democracy in the heart of the Middle East," Republicans granted him all the leeway he could want.

The Constitution says the government should "provide for the common defense." But Bush translated "defense" to mean going to war far from our shores against a country that had not attacked us.

His idea of self-restraint was saying, "The United States will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats" (emphasis added). But he insisted that "the United States cannot remain idle while dangers gather." Any potential danger, anywhere, anytime was grounds for an American attack.

A more sensible view is that the U.S. can indeed remain idle while alleged dangers gather, because most of them won't materialize. The immortal philosopher Calvin Coolidge said, "If you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you." Many conservatives believe in hurrying out to meet all 10 just in case.

Obama noted that in recent decades, "some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences." Substitute "government programs" for "military adventures," and he could be quoting Paul Ryan.

"I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm's way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed," he told the cadets. The attitude he cautions against is one that he and his fellow Democrats do not routinely apply to domestic matters. But it's a sound one.

Critics charge that Obama's foreign policy shows an unwillingness to lead, or weakness, or uncertain purposes. The same complaint, of course, could be made about conservative policies on poverty, health care, urban blight, access to housing and more. "Don't you care?" indignant liberals ask.

But sometimes ambitious government undertakings are too expensive to justify, sometimes they fail to solve problems, and sometimes they make things worse. In those instances, declining to act—and explaining why—is the most authentic form of leadership. That's just as true in the international realm as it is in the domestic one.

If Obama has yet to come up with a bumper-sticker slogan for his approach, the elements are fairly clear: Don't use military force until other means are exhausted—and maybe not then. Don't use ground troops when you can use bombers or drones. Don't act alone when you can enlist allies. Don't take the lead role when someone else will do so.

Don't do for other countries what they could do for themselves. Don't confuse desirable outcomes with vital interests. Keep in mind that very few things are more costly and harmful to American interests than an unnecessary, unsuccessful war.

The president has followed these guidelines with reasonable consistency, which is one reason he could tell the cadets, "You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan"—and not because they'll be deploying to fight somewhere else.

There will always be people who demand that the U.S. government do more and spend whatever it takes to solve an array of problems without any assurance of accomplishing its goals. Abroad, at least, Obama is not one of them.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Ted S.||

    No Brickbat?

  • Ted S.||

    I swear the Brickbat wasn't there when I commented!

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    It's been a while, but I've had "earlier" articles appear after "later" ones too. It got bad enough (about the time WI was pasting up her DOS mega-posts) that I was seriously wondering about my observational skills.

  • db||

    If Obama has yet to come up with a bumper-sticker slogan for his approach, the elements are fairly clear: Don't use military force until other means are exhausted—and maybe not then. Don't use ground troops when you can use bombers or drones. Don't act alone when you can enlist allies. Don't take the lead role when someone else will do so.

    Pretty sure Bill Clinton pioneered this approach in recent history.

    Plus, Chapman makes the.(now) classic mistake of writing off things like bombings and drone.attacks as something other than "military force." Sorry, but I imagine the targets of.such attacks, their families and.friends, and their governments (no matter how little they do.to stop it.for fear of "regime change," don't see it that way.

  • ian6552||

    Start working from home with Google. I make money in my ѕpаr℮ tim℮! I have been unemployed fоr months but nοw i mаĸ℮ up to $100/day on the computer. pop over to this website www.Fox81.com

  • db||

    Libya? Extended presence in Afghanistan? The ill-considered push to intervene in Syria made by Obama himself? Projection of.military force in relatively small amounts into Africa to involve ourselves in local mattets? What are these, Chapman?

  • Ted S.||

    They're conservative if you're a cosmotarian.

  • Slammer||

    The WH image control freaks really outdid themselves with that photo: he looks like a guru giving a lecture on the Path to Whatever...in a Under Armour windbreaker. Its so bizarre.

  • LemonMender||

    Ain't that cute: Chapman read Sandy Berger’s recent encomium of the “Obama Doctrine” and actually believed it. Well, I guess at least one sucker had to believe him.

  • LemonMender||

    If this is Obama’s policy, he has a strange way of showing it, since he's been dragged kicking and screaming into it in the cases where he hasn't just gone ahead and used military force. To wit, the only reasons he couldn't get us in Syria were because (a) the American people (not the Administration) didn't want to go there and (b) his Secretary of State couldn't stay on script. Hardly sounds like a compelling doctrine when Obama runs around trying to get out of it.

  • Ted S.||

    Sandy Berger? The guy who got caught trying to steal classified documents, but because he's part of the Poliitcal Class, didn't get treated the way the Political Class is treating Edward Snowden?

  • Marshall Gill||

    Sandy Pants Berger.

  • Marshall Gill||

    The Obama doctrine, writes Steve Chapman, is one of comparatively limited government.

    Chapman is usually horrible, but this is just embarrassing.

    The Shrieking Imbecile could have written this piece. I continue to expect that Chapman has witnessed one of the editors committing murder and blackmails them into running his articles. They just can't be running them for their content.

  • prolefeed||

    Limited compared to what? Funny, didn't notice any drastic cuts to the military budget run up by Bush II, which would be the case if Obama was actually shrinking federal warmongering.

  • db||

    The effort is apparently turned inward, considering the buildup of the.intelligence.apparatus.

  • ||

    "Chapman is usually horrible, but this is just embarrassing."

    ^This.

    Chapman seems to be taking the approach the whitehouse uses -" Believe what I am telling you and not your lying eyes."

  • Drake||

    I have no idea what I just read. Somebody just mistook some of Obama's ramblings as serious thought, then ignored the past 6 years.

    Obama doesn't have a foreign policy. It's all ad-hoc nonsense. After he makes a decision and acts foolishly, he makes up a principle that justifies it.

    The only real guideline I can see to Obama's foreign policy is to never do anything that is actually in the interest of the U.S. Which is consistent with his domestic policies.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    The president has followed these guidelines with reasonable consistency

    Nice qualifier there Chapman. Hedge your arguments much?

    Why does Reason publish Chapman anyway? He's a resident Obama apologist for the Chicago Tribune.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Why does Reason publish Chapman anyway?

    He regularly writes about the very Libertarian expansion of the State over personal relationships. While everything else is Leftard drivel, he is on the side of the angels when it comes to the Liberty to receive government benefits and recognition.

  • db||

    Clicks and bait for the reason commentariat.

  • wareagle||

    if by "policy" you mean talk about something long after it has bubbled to the surface, describe yourself as outraged/upset/determined to find a solution/whatever, make a speech or two, talk some more, and ultimately do nothing, then I guess that qualifies as dictionary conservative.

    Obama does nothing because 1) he's not sure what to do and has shown that repeatedly and 2) he doesn't really want to do anything because it's too much like work and cuts into his perpetual campaign.

  • Doctor Whom||

    If someone tells you one thing but takes every opportunity to show you the exact opposite, which do you believe, and why?

  • wareagle||

    if you like your foreign policy,.....

  • Slammer||

    Whatever my TEAM tells me?

  • John||

    If Chapman didn't exist, those of us who claim the reason staff are nothing but douche bag leftists pretending to be Pibertarians for a paycheck would have to invent him.

  • Kevin47||

    Obama's foreign policy is utterly incoherent, and has sort of limited itself in that sense. Take Syria, for example, where Obama clearly wanted a legacy war, but got outwitted by Putin. There are good reasons to prefer incompetent governance to competent governance, when dealing with massive governance.

    That said, we aren't spending any less money, and it's not clear to me that we have any less people dying.

  • GILMORE||

    "The Obama doctrine, writes Steve Chapman, is one of comparatively limited government."

    Wrong

    Someone's already said it (fuck, the guy right before me, Kevin47 says it)

    There is no 'obama doctrine'. Obama and his crew have zero 'foreign policy' at all. If 'absence of motivating concept' translates to 'conservative' through sheer ineptitude and incoherence, then i guess 'muddling one's way along' is a distinct improvement on the Neoconservative idea of Forceful Reshaping of Geopolitics in the Cold War Era. But we should not confuse that with intent. As noted above = see the consequences in various areas, such as Iran/Syria, Israel, Russia, or China. Narrowing it down to Israel provides a nice case-study = the Israelis openly announced that they have no interest in working with Americans as a negotiating partner re: Palestine because we're such fucking incompetent douchebags with their enemies (see Iran). Similarly, Russia would have never made a move for Crimea without Obama painting himself into a corner. Dont get me started on China.

    If the libertarian goal is a 'hands off' foreign policy, then we're not getting there because America under Obama is so 'polite' = its because we're incompetently grabby.

  • GILMORE||

    ..."in the POST Cold War Era"...

  • R C Dean||

    Let's not forget that his "hands-off" foreign policy includes the extra-territorial assertion of US law on foreign nationals, and activities on foreign soil. Exhibit A is the Obama Administration's attempt to regulate foreign banks through FATCA.

  • R C Dean||

    Conservatives generally agree on a few propositions. The federal government should avoid spending money unnecessarily. It shouldn't exceed its basic constitutional duties. It should encourage self-reliance rather than dependency. It should accept that some problems are beyond its ability to solve.

    Barack Obama, they may be surprised to learn, agrees with much of this formula.

    As far as I can tell, Barack Obama comprehensively rejects this formula, both domestically and abroad. This may be one of the stupidest things ever written by someone not actually cashing a Democrat paycheck.

  • Not a Libertarian||

    not actually cashing a Democratic paycheck, that we know of at least.

  • ian6552||

    Start working from home with Google. I make money in my ѕpаr℮ tim℮! I have been unemployed fоr months but nοw i mаĸ℮ up to $100/day on the computer. pop over to this website www.Fox81.com

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement