At his West Point speech, President Obama articulated as close as we are likely to get to an ‘Obama Doctrine.’ The United States, he said, “will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.” All other international issues, he went on, will require international cooperation and joint participation with other states.
Sounds good. Yet the President has been savaged. Mostly by conservative commentators but also by some you’d think were his supporters. The problem is not so much the ‘doctrine’ (contrary to many commentators) but the confusing incompetence by which so much of U.S. foreign policy has been carried out.
Here is what some of the critics are saying.
The Washington Post editorial board: “President Obama has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries. . . In his address. . . Mr. Obama marshaled a virtual corps of straw men. . . When “crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction,” he said, “we should not go it alone.” This binding of U.S. power places Mr. Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II.
David Ignatius: “How did the Obama administration’s foreign policy process get so broken? He needs to be more strategic and less political. . . ”
Charles Krauthammer: “Obama seems unaware of how far his country has fallen. He attributes claims of American decline to either misreading history or partisan politics. Problem is: Most of the complaints are coming from abroad. . . ”
E.J. Dionne: “. . . the ghost of declinism haunts the international stage and will not be exorcised easily.”
In some way, of course, the Obama’s decision against foreign entanglements, which he legitimizes by reference to Presidents past from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower, is also legitimized by U.S. public opinion.
Percent of U.S. Public Saying “We Should ‘Mind Our Own Business’ Internationally”
But I think the critics and public opinion miss the chief failing of Obama’s foreign policy – its seeming incompetence. Ross Douthat, writing in The New York Times has it right.
“. . . whether you thought Snowden was a hero or a traitor, the fact that a junior-level Booz Allen Hamilton contractor was able to swipe a trove of significant state secrets, pass them along to various media outlets, and then find his way to sanctuary in a hostile power did not exactly reflect well on the way American intelligence does business under this president. And then again, whether you thought that intervention in Syria was the wisest course or not, the uncertain, haphazard, and politically incompetent course that the president took to non-intervention left the distinct impression that the White House lacked anything resembling a strategy for dealing with one of the larger crises taking place on its watch. In both cases, in other words, people could disagree on the ends they wanted while agreeing that they were watching a setback, a fumble, a bollix, an embarrassment.” (March 28, 2014)
Douthat, being kindly to the President, omitted many other examples of the U.S. as bumbling international actor. The overthrow of Gaddafi has devolved into a Libyan free-for-all. Iraq has devolved into a tumultuous killer-take-all mess. Afghanistan will likely devolve into the same when the U.S. combat role ends. The administration’s ‘reset with Russia’ has devolved into the seizure of Crimea. China’s massive cyber theft of U.S. commercial secrets has devolved into a wanted poster. The ‘Pivot To Asia’ has not devolved into a shift of substantial resources to those states threatened by China.
More painful examples could be added. But that seems pointless. It is also pointless to compare President Obama to President Bush. No foreign policy debacle comparable to Iraq can be attributed to this President. But the fact remains that as the U.S. has failed, again and again, to take international action with decisive and telling effect, the U.S. public wants more withdrawal and the commentators – from the left and the right –see red meat.