The Puzzle of Obama’s “Small-Ball” Strategy: Caution, Retrenchment, and Realism
by Scott Waalkes, Malone University
Politicians always campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Obama’s foreign policy began similarly with lofty aims yet ended modestly. However, one of the puzzles of the Obama administration was the chasm between the soaring rhetoric at its beginning and the prosaic realities of foreign policy at its end. This chasm resulted from the power of narrative and the strategic choices of the president himself. By Not Doing Stupid Stuff, the Obama administration ultimately embraced a doctrine that led to inaction in Syria.
Obama’s supporters would argue that such an imperative was a wise pendulum swing away from the expansive neoconservative Bush vision that fought a global war on terrorism, used force to impose democracy, and engaged in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the Bush team swung for the fences, the Obama team would play “small ball” with smart and achievable policy moves. Thus, they had a clear strategy, rooted in a posture of caution, retrenchment, and realism. However, this strategy appeared as a puzzling departure from the lofty rhetoric of Obama’s advisers and the president himself. Surprisingly, a presidency that started with audacious hopes had ended by avoiding mistakes.