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Restraint and Its Discontents

by Richard Fontaine

Evaluating two terms of Obama’s foreign policy

It was clear from the outset that Obama would preside over national retrenchment. George W. Bush had waged a global war on terror and campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, pursued years of confrontation with North Korea and Iran, increased defense spending and foreign aid, and, with a “forward strategy of freedom,” aimed to end tyranny around the world. The traditional American goals of security, prosperity, and freedom would be advanced, his administration generally held, through deep global engagement and the vigorous and confident assertion of U.S. power.

Obama entered office believing that he could achieve the same broad goals by doing less rather than more. In this he was with the American people; as Senator John McCain’s foreign-policy adviser in 2008, I could see the weariness among those who had, since 9/11, waged or funded the country’s battles, who worried about future confrontations and global unpopularity, and who sensed that the terrorist threat, because it was diminishing, was not impelling the action it still required. The financial crisis put the mood in stark relief, but it had built steadily throughout Bush’s last years in office.

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