Truman and Obama on Foreign Policy

By Ross Douthat, Evaluations - January 18, 2013

My Sunday column on President Obama’s foreign policy synthesis (as manifested in the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan) argued that he presently “enjoys more trust "” and with it, more latitude "” on foreign policy than any Democrat since Harry Truman.” Daniel Larison calls this invocation of Truman a “strange anachronism,” and elaborates:

It was Truman's foreign policy mistakes, both perceived and real, that helped the Republicans to end their two decades out of power and made the Republicans a credible alternative for governing for the first time since the 1920s. Truman's expansion of containment doctrine into a policy to be pursued globally had long-lasting, pernicious effects on U.S. foreign policy that would last until the end of the Cold War. Truman left office with approval ratings worse than the lowest ratings of George W. Bush, and rightly so. It was only much later that Truman's reputation was rehabilitated …

The point here is that Truman's last years in office didn't include his being widely trusted on foreign policy, but rather just the opposite.

Quite so! But Obama isn’t in his last years in office yet, and I had in mind the Truman of 1948 rather than the Truman of 1952 "” the pre-Korean War Truman, that is, whose early Cold War strategy enjoyed strong bipartisan support, to the frustration of more left-wing figures like Henry Wallace and the bafflement of his Republican opponents. The parallels are imperfect, but there are interesting echoes of the divergent Republican responses to Truman’s foreign policy positioning "” from the Arthur Vandenbergs who lent it a bipartisan sheen, to the rollback advocates who decided that containment amounted to appeasement, to the old guard non-interventionists who opposed the new Cold War architecture outright "” in the ways that different kinds of Republicans, from realists to neoconservatives to non-interventionists, have struggled to figure out what to say about Obama’s approach to war and peace. (Robert Gates or Colin Powell or Chuck Hagel might be Vandenberg in this analogy, John McCain might be John Foster Dulles, and Rand Paul, I suppose, would play the part of Robert Taft.) And there are parallels, too, between the role foreign policy played in the 1948 campaign "” as a secondary issue that nonetheless probably helped Truman’s cause, mostly because his opponent wasn’t sure when to agree with the incumbent and when to out-hawk him "” and the role it played in the election season we’ve just experienced. (In this area, as in others, the Tom Dewey-as-Mitt Romney analogy pretty much writes itself.)

I should have been clearer about which phase of the Truman era I had in mind, and while I’m more sympathetic to his record than Larison, I agree that his once-underrated administration has been overrated by his subsequent rehabilitators. But for a time, Truman did occupy the foreign policy center in a way that that few Democrats have managed since. And the fact that his credibility crumbled in his second term, when our push to reunify Korea turned into a war with Mao’s China, dovetails with my column’s larger point "” which was that Obama’s foreign policy is still a work in progress, and that the final judgment on his record will probably look very different after another four years of watching his strategic choices play themselves out.

Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for He is the author of “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” (Hyperion, 2005) and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream” (Doubleday, 2008). He is the film critic for National Review.

January 18

Echoes of 1948 in the foreign policy debates of 2012.

January 17

Modest regulations are more likely to deter suicide than prevent murder, and should be judged accordingly.

January 16

Why the current balance of power in Washington might be upset in the next few election cycles.

January 14

The platinum coin, the debt ceiling, and how technical victories are swamped by political defeats.

January 11

How an ancient faith shapes modern spirituality and modern atheism alike.

The nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, two men with Bush-era perspectives, tell us something about the president's foreign policy.

In a dysfunctional Washington, this is what success looks like.

This is the moment to get out of your rut and visit the rest of the political spectrum.

Read Full Article »

Latest On Twitter

Follow Real Clear Politics

Real Clear Politics Video

More RCP Video Highlights »