Obama’s foreign policy failures have created uncanny parallels with Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Obama has been compared to many previous Democrats, but now is threatened with seeing his presidency staked on foreign policy, just as Wilson’s was. Separated by almost a century, Obama must hope his administration does not suffer the same fate as his predecessor’s.
Foreign policy did not figure prominently in Wilson’s early agenda. Elected only by virtue of Republicans’ presidential self-destruction, he focused on domestic policy. Abroad, his goal was to keep America out of foreign entanglements — particularly WWI, after 1914. He narrowly won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war.”
When finally dragged into WWI, he aimed for an evenhanded outcome based on his Fourteen Points. Despite late entry, he sought a primary role in the peace. He felt ownership over the Treaty of Versailles, and staked everything — politically and personally — on its ratification. His ultimate failure cost Wilson not only his administration, but his health and nearly his life.
Obama’s foreign policy experience is virtually a mirror image of Wilson’s — the same picture but in reverse. Like Wilson, Obama’s primary focus has been domestic. His foreign policy approach seemed to simply not be George W. Bush, and his goal to get America out of existing military engagements — most notably Iraq.
Like Wilson, Obama was thrust into foreign policy. A century ago, some undoubtedly questioned Wilson’s sincerity when he entered WWI; today, many are questioning Obama’s competency now that he is engaged in foreign policy.
While Wilson excluded Congress, particularly Republicans, during WWI’s European peace negotiations, Obama has been exclusionary from the beginning. The result of both: a lack of buy-in, goodwill, or basic trust. As Wilson discovered and Obama will, at some point, Congressional support is necessary, even in this most executive of functions.
Both presidents exhibited naïveté in their foreign policy. Again, Wilson’s was at the end — journeying to Europe to strike a peace for nations that had endured unimaginable losses over four years in the world’s worst war. Obama’s came at the beginning with his belief that by being loved, America would be respected and others would accede to our policy views. That failure is now seen globally.
Finally, foreign policy destroyed Wilson’s presidency and now similarly threatens Obama’s.
Foreign policy thrust itself on both presidents, but from different angles. Wilson, for all his faults, staked everything he had on a vision. He lost, but not for want of political capital, but because he refused to compromise with Republicans on his vision.
Contrastingly, Obama cannot even afford the foreign policy “ante” expected of the free world’s leader. Even the most basic moves are beyond his depleted political capital. Nor are these moves part of a larger vision. From the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, to the Arab Spring, to the Syrian civil war, Iraq, and the Israel-Palestine conflict, there is nothing that links this administration’s actions.
Obama cannot afford any of his foreign policy moves because he has expended his political capital.
Legislatively, after almost six years in office he has not forged a relationship with Congress — not even with Democrats, and certainly not with Republicans. Policy-wise and politically, Obama has no support on the right and only a minority of it in America’s center — having lost it on health care, the economy, and various other issues. Obama is wholly dependent on the left — and it is here where his foreign policy responses are now eroding even this residual support. As his administration has looked adrift abroad, the left’s support has begun to drift from it.
Obama’s real problem is not a partisan one, as Wilson’s was, but an ideological one, arising from within his own base. Within the left on which he is entirely dependent is a sizable contingent for whom U.S. engagement — especially militarily — is never legitimate. So, even as Obama is forced to take reasonable stances abroad, he loses support within his shrinking base.
As Obama erodes his base on the left, he also emboldens the right. As he weakens his presidency, he prompts Congress to fill the void. He finds himself in a strikingly similar position to that of Wilson.
There is an over-arching foreign policy similarity between these two administrations a hundred years apart, but they come to the same point from opposite directions. Wilson lost his presidency on a foreign policy in pursuit of a vision. He staked everything on it and refused to compromise to cut his losses in the end.
Obama is threatened with losing his presidency on a foreign policy in the absence of a vision. Having eroded his support over almost six years, he cannot afford Wilson’s big gamble on a vision — even if he had one. He finds himself paying an increasingly costly foreign policy price, just to stay in the game. In such straits, he finds himself where Wilson was, facing the ultimate risk, but with no prospect of a visionary reward. He is instead merely playing for his political survival.