Plan B: Restraint vs. Weakness

It seems to me that Stephen Walt’s “Plan B” for President Barack Obama’s foreign policy basically amounts to shrugging off the inability to achieve desired outcomes and lowering expectations moving forward. I’m not saying Walt’s necessarily wrong on the merits, but it doesn’t strike me as a winning second-term agenda, which was the point of the exercise.

I can’t find the exact post, but Nikolas Gvosdev has been developing the theme that eventually, Obama is going to have to make it clear just what the costs are for crossing him, both to friends, rivals and enemies. So far, there haven’t seemed to be any. But appearances can be deceiving. I mentioned the very visible strategic hesitation over Afghanistan as a way to pressure other invested powers to pony up what’s been asked for. Andrew Exum subsequently argued something similar, with particular regard to getting a message across to the Karzai government.

In many ways, the kind of restraint Walt is arguing for is very necessary. And I suppose it could be seen as a sort of punishment for lack of cooperation, the geopolitical equivalent of taking our ball and going home. Needless to say, there would be a lot of unhappy youngsters left in the sandlot if we decided to do that.

But there’s a delicate balance between restraint and the appearance of weakness. And while America clearly needs to exercise the former, Obama would do well to avoid getting saddled with the latter. Walt forthrightly admits that he’s still wrestling with the question. But the answer he offers so far risks creating a vicious cycle of frustrated policy goals, meaning it wouldn’t be long before we’d be desperately in need of a Plan C.