Robert Lieber, Barack Obama, and the Goldilocks Doctrine

A Georgetown professor takes on Obama’s foreign policy—but what is his alternative?

In his book Retreat and Its Consequences, Robert J. Lieber, a professor of U.S. foreign policy and international politics at Georgetown University, advocates for a more active American foreign policy, drawing upon evidence from the presidency of Barack Obama to demonstrate that restraint and retrenchment in the face of global threats is a losing strategy for the United States. Though he puts forward a compelling case for American leadership, he fails to flesh out exactly where his vision fits between retreat and interventionism—leaving a critical part of his work unfinished.


Retreat and Its Consequences, available on Amazon.

Lieber excels in his fair yet unforgiving evaluation of the Obama Doctrine. Observing that “[d]iplomacy tends to be far more effective when backed by power and the will to use it,” he identifies several cases, from America’s premature withdrawal from Iraq to the failed Russian reset, in which the Obama administration sacrificed global stability and the credibility of Western institutions on the altar of retrenchment.1 Lieber gives due credit to President Obama for his embrace of drone strikes and Special Forces teams to fight terrorism, but he manages to place these interventionist actions within the context of Obama’s broader commitment to American withdrawal.

N.A.T.O.’s 2011 intervention into Libya, arguably the best counter to this unflattering portrait of Obama’s foreign policy, is the only piece which does not quite fit into Lieber’s puzzle. Though the U.S. did lean heavily on international institutions to justify intervention in Libya, it did commit significant resources to the multilateral and ultimately successful effort to topple Gaddafi. Almost in anticipation of this retort, Lieber points then to the chaos which followed Gaddafi’s ouster as the result of President Obama’s retrenchment strategy. It is true that “none of the outside powers who had intervened” in the Libyan conflict “were willing to commit sufficient resources to aid the Libyans in restoring order and viable institutions,” but a careless commitment in Libya could have created a repeat of the Western experience in Iraq—where twenty-one days of major combat operations2 morphed into a costly, decade-long nation-building program.3 Although Lieber rightly characterizes U.S. intervention in Iraq as “a policy failure of major proportions,” his insistence that America should have done more to maintain stability in Libya comes with no guidance as to how she would have done so without unwittingly stepping into another Middle Eastern quagmire.4

“Diplomacy tends to be far more effective when backed by power and the will to use it.”

Lieber also critiques the liberal internationalist view—held by President Obama and others—that the BRICS5 would “become responsible stakeholders” in international institutions as a consequence of American retrenchment.6 Drawing upon copious examples of malfeasance and obstruction by the BRICS in the U.N. and other international bodies, he contends that these countries—particularly China and Russia—“oppos[e] Western liberal internationalist narratives” to further their own domestic agendas.7 To stop this “free-riding behavior,” Lieber argues, the U.S. must step in to “sustain[] an open international economic order,” backing failing international institutions with American might.8

But by describing the BRICS as self-interested, parasitic actors within the international system, Lieber suggests that the United States is somehow different—a member of some higher order of nations which are willing to shoulder the burden of sustaining international institutions, regardless of the cost. In reality, however, the U.S. is just like the BRICS. She utilizes global institutions to accomplish her own policy objectives when it is convenient to do so, and when important national priorities face opposition within international bodies, her leaders seek alternative paths to implementation, often circumventing the very international systems which she claimed to respect at the outset. Lieber is right that American reengagement would bolster international institutions and pressure the BRICS to afford greater respect to U.S. interests and international law. But what makes international institutions such effective vessels for American power—their inherent and structural dependency upon the West—is also what discourages cooperation from actors who do not share Western goals and who see these institutions as a subversive tool of U.S. influence. To his credit, Lieber does touch upon the weakness of international institutions, particularly during his discussion of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but he misses the causal link between these institutions’ dependence upon American power and their impotence in the face of global crises.9

What makes international institutions such effective vessels for American power—their inherent and structural dependency upon the West—is also what discourages cooperation from actors who do not share Western goals.

Lieber concludes his book with a broad overview of the current position of the United States, both domestically and internationally. Most striking is his sober assessment of the idea of American decline, which Lieber mostly dismisses in spite of his own negative view of the retrenchment of the Obama years. “[The] repeated cycles of declinist sentiment,” Lieber explains, appear to be the result of “short-term thinking, overreaction to adversity and most importantly, insufficient appreciation for the resilience and adaptability of the United States in coping with crises.”10 He concludes that though the U.S. may be in decline, America “retains the capacity to lead” and to stabilize an increasingly chaotic world.11

At the end of Lieber’s account, the road to recapturing the mantle of global leadership is not much clearer than it was at the outset. The indictment of President Obama’s policy of retrenchment is devastating, but it does little to reimagine America’s role in the world and offer a new path forward. In light of the global crises and domestic challenges which Lieber identifies, the U.S. needs a Goldilocks foreign policy—neither too weak nor too meddlesome—but knowing what this new foreign policy vision should not include is only half the answer.

  1. Lieber, Robert J., Retreat and Its Consequences (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016), 16.
  2. The History Channel, “March 19: On This Day In History.” Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  3. Lieber, Retreat and Its Consequences, 85.
  4. Ibid. at 61.
  5. “BRICS” is an informal reference to the preeminent group of developing countries—usually composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
  6. Lieber, Retreat and Its Consequences, 74.
  7. Ibid. at 76.
  8. Ibid. at 83.
  9. Ibid. at 117 (“As with almost all international agreements, the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention] is not self-enforcing. The UN Security Council lacks the unity among its permanent members to do so and the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] does not have the authority or capacity to act.”).
  10. Ibid. at 121.
  11. Ibid. at 137.

    Photo: IIP Photo Archive (Flickr)


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