WASHINGTON — It’s painful watching the YouTube video of President Obama in Manila last week talking about hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy. Everything he says is measured, and most of it is correct. But he acts as if he’s talking to a rational world, as opposed to one inhabited by leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In the realm of power politics, American presidents don’t get points for being right but for being (or appearing) strong. Presidents either say they’re going to knock the ball out of the park, or they say nothing. The intangible factors of strength and credibility (so easy to mock) are, in fact, the glue of a rules-based international system.
Under Obama, the United States has suffered some real reputational damage. I say that as someone who sympathizes with many of Obama’s foreign policy goals. This damage unfortunately has largely been self-inflicted by an administration that focuses too much on short-term messaging. At key turning points — in Egypt and Libya during the Arab Spring, in Syria, in Ukraine, and yes, in Benghazi — the administration was driven by messaging priorities rather than sound, interests-based policy.
That’s why the Benghazi “talking points” fiasco still has legs. Not because of some goofy criminal conspiracy, as imagined by conservatives, but because it shows the administration spent more time thinking about what to say than what to do.
How can Obama repair the damage? One obvious answer is to be careful: The perception of weakness can goad a president into taking rash and counterproductive actions to show he’s strong. The deeper you slide into a perceived reputational hole, the worse this dilemma.
One of Obama’s strengths is that he does indeed understand the value of caution. He can be decisive, as in the May 2011 raid to kill Osama bin Laden. But he’s usually reluctant to make large bets when the outcome is uncertain, which is commendable. The country should value a deliberative president who knows U.S. military options are limited in dealing with Putin in Ukraine, as opposed to a hothead who pretends otherwise.
You can sympathize with Obama in Manila, when he hectored those who advocate tougher policy: “What do you mean? … What else are you talking about?” Some of his critics’ proposals are half-baked or downright dangerous. But Obama is right only up to a point. His own advisers recommended nearly two years ago covert support for the Syrian opposition; Obama should have said yes. His critics didn’t make him draw a “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons; that was self-inflicted. Obama didn’t need to delay so long to move more military assets to the Baltic states and Poland to signal decisive protection for NATO members.
“Say less and do more” is how one U.S. official puts it. That’s a simple recipe, and a correct one. The key for Obama is to base policy on the fundamentals, where U.S. strength is overwhelming and the weakness of Russia (or any other potential adversary) is palpable. Just look at some numbers. The U.S. economy is growing solidly again, at a roughly 2.6 percent annual rate, generating jobs and reducing public and private debt. A shale oil and gas boom has analysts talking about the U.S. as a new Saudi Arabia. Even the screwballs in the U.S. Congress can’t derail the recovery.
Russia, in contrast, is a mess and getting worse. An April 30 report by the International Monetary Fund said Russia’s growth will slow to 0.2 percent this year from an anemic 1.3 percent in 2013. Capital outflows were $51 billion in the first quarter. Russia’s economic strategy is based on energy, but “this growth framework has reached its limits,” says the IMF. “More integration with the world economy should help close the productivity gap with other countries, foster investment and diversification, and enhance growth.” But that’s precisely what Putin is forfeiting with his reckless Ukraine policy.
Ukraine, in contrast to foundering Russia, has a new $17 billion IMF loan, with plans for stabilizing its financial system, reducing corruption and ending dependence on Russian energy.
Stay the course, in other words. With sanctions, diplomatic pressure, NATO resolve. If Obama can hold the Western alliance together with these measured policies, the essential weakness of Putin’s position will be obvious in a few years. If Putin is foolish enough to invade Ukraine, he will face a protracted guerrilla war, city by city, as he moves toward Kiev.
The counter to Putin is strong, sustainable U.S. policy. To a battered Obama, three words: Suck it up.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.