The paradox of President Obama’s do-no-harm foreign policy is that it has created harm. An absence of vision, over time, reflects an absence of strategy.
America and many parts of the world are poorer for it.
Five years ago, Obama’s signal appeal was that he wasn’t George W. Bush. Western heads of state thought Bush ham-handed and impolitic, a president without scruples who launched a bloody, unnecessary war in Iraq based on a canard, that Saddam Hussein had squirreled away weapons of mass destruction.
There was Afghanistan, America’s longest war, a searing redux of the country’s occupation by the British and the Soviets. Add to this torture, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the NSA’s mass surveillance of American citizens, and an impolitic style turns into a morally repugnant legacy.
Enter Obama. One do-no-harm year in the Oval Office, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics,” the 2009 Nobel citation reads. Translation: Obama wasn’t Bush.
The world is a dangerous place, as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, and Obama quickly responded to the menace of Al Qaida and non-state actors by embracing his predecessor’s policy of drone strikes. That extended to American citizens suspected of terrorism, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, hiding in Yemen. A former Constitutional law professor, Obama now okays the extrajudicial killing of American terrorists abroad.
Obama’s focus was de-escalation in Iraq and a pared down but long-term commitment to Afghanistan. It’s a non-adventurist policy, retrenchment with teeth.
“When the maximalist overreaches, the retrencher comes in to pick up the pieces,” Stephen Sestanovich writes in his book, “Maximalist.” “Then when retrenchment fails to build American power, meet new challenges or compete effectively, the maximalist reappears, ready with ambitious formulas for doing so.”
Brace for the bipartisan floating of ambitious formulas during the 2016 presidential race. But America doesn’t need a splendid little war to compete effectively. In a complex world, nimbleness and consistency are required.
Obama embraced the idea of a post-Bush new beginning in the Mideast, encapsulated in his 2009 Cairo speech. The U.S. would tack from Iraq and concentrate on the broader Middle East.
The president assembled a best-and-the-brightest Mideast team, which nevertheless lacked focus.
“What was still missing from this mix of archers and arrows was a clear target,” writes University of Washington Professor Joel Migdal in his new book, “Shifting Sands, The United States in the Middle East.” “There was no comprehensive understanding of how the various hotspots, wars, and other challenges that the United States faced in the area intersected with one another, so that a coherent regionwide policy could be devised.”
The Arab Spring became a litmus test, a test the administration largely failed. As with administrations from World War II on, Obama adopted a one-size approach to the Middle East informed by the Cold War policy of containment and blind to the complex transformations taking place.
And then there is Syria, the most horrific human rights and humanitarian crisis in seventy years. Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, crossing Obama’s “red line.” As Reuters reported Thursday, there’s no sign Syria is meeting its deadline to hand over its remaining cache of weapons.
The Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea are equally complex, met with hand wringing and targeted sanctions.
The challenge in foreign policy, as in politics, is never to mistake motion for action.
When Obama visited the Oso landslide in April, he was headed to Japan, part of the administration’s “pivot” to Asia. But the vaunted Trans Pacific Partnership, an initiative to ease trade relations, has yet to come together.
Unlike many domestic issues, American foreign policy can’t be back-filled. A president can remedy a lackluster conservation record by designating national monuments during the last months of his term. Legacy secured.
Global leadership demands long-term consistency and relationship building. No 11th-hour improvising.
Obama’s divining rod, risk-averse approach has limited American bloodshed, which may satisfy a war-weary country. But has he advanced human rights, peace and global security?
Obama needs to exhibit a strong, clear vision. In foreign policy, passivity and incoherence harm the public interest.