Obama: Prevaricating On Foreign Policy

My Comments: It’s hard not to be tired and uninterested in the speeches of a President now well into his second and last term as President. Never mind that I voted for him twice and have a generally favorable opinion of his efforts on our behalf.

Foreign policy is not something that does much for the economic fortunes of those of us in the great unwashed middle class of America. Not unless and until we find ourselves at war with various groups across the planet who have vowed to bring us to our knees and have us die a painful death.

When that happens, I get more involved. Like it or not, we are the world’s policeman. We’ve been that since the end of the Cold War and Russia dissolved into something resembling a third world country. But the death of American lives in support of those around the planet who, for the most part simply argue their God is better than my God, is not something I want to see.

As a financial planner, I’m accustomed to thinking about the future and what is likely to be in my clients best interests, things they have little use for as they live and work today. Same with the President. It’s not just who is trying to kick someone else’s ass today, it’s who is likely to be kicking who tomorrow and whether that will impact the planet to our detriment.

I don’t know the answer, and it appears as if Obama and his team don’t either. At least they don’t seem to, and I find that troubling.

By Richard Haass / May 29, 2014 6:38 pm

US president’s speech tells us what he opposes not what he favours, writes Richard Haass

Barack Obama’s long-anticipated speech on Wednesday at West Point, the US Military Academy, was designed to answer a growing number of domestic critics of his foreign policy, who believe he is not doing enough to advance American interests around the world. It was also intended to push back against the growing tide of isolationism in a country preoccupied with domestic challenges and disillusioned with the results of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the address was meant to reassure America’s friends around the world.

Not surprisingly so ambitious a speech, aimed at so many audiences, failed to meet any, much less all, of its goals.

A big part of the problem resulted from a speech that told us more about what the president opposed than what he favoured. He is against too much military intervention, but he is also against too little of it. America must avoid choosing between realism and idealism in its global conduct. It must be multilateral, except when it must act alone. All arguably true, but such generalities are more fitting for someone starting out in office than for an incumbent in his sixth year.

It did not help that, one day before the speech, Mr Obama laid out his new policy toward Afghanistan. US military forces are to come down to just below 10,000 by the end of this year, and to be removed entirely a month before he leaves office in early 2017. But this is a calendar-based policy, not one determined by conditions. It is an exit without a strategy, one that increases the odds the new Afghan government will struggle – much as has happened in Iraq in the aftermath of the complete US military departure from that country.

It would have been far better for the president to make the case for long-term presence in which the probable results justified the anticipated costs. This calculation is what lies behind the wise decisions to maintain US forces in Europe, Japan and South Korea for more than half a century. Instead, Mr Obama reinforced the very trend towards avoiding responsibility that he criticised a day later.

Elsewhere, the president did suggest that he favoured providing more help to those countries surrounding Syria that risk being overwhelmed by the flow of refugees. And he declared he would approach Congress to increase help to those opponents of the Assad regime that held agendas the US could live with. This is to be welcomed, although details were left unsaid.

Mr Obama is smart to limit direct military involvement in Syria’s civil war, but he has not made the case why the US has done so little indirectly over the past three years. Nor has he said why it should not use military force when Syria’s government clearly violates international norms, as it has done by using chemical weapons.

The president also neglected to mention Libya, where a modest military intervention by the US and others helped to create a vacuum, now mostly filled by terrorists. What we were to learn from this, Mr Obama did not say.

The president defended his policies towards Ukraine and Iran, although major tests lie ahead for both. In the meantime, he largely ignored the part of the world most likely to shape this century, the Asia Pacific.

What makes this omission more glaring is that in his first term Mr Obama called for a pivot, or rebalancing, of US foreign policy towards that part of the world. This makes great strategic sense given US interests and commitments, the rise of China, the surge in local nationalism and the weakness of regional diplomatic arrangements. One part of this pivot is a commitment to increase the presence and role of US military forces, the ostensible subject of Wednesday’s address. This has yet to happen. For now, the pivot remains mostly rhetorical. On this occasion it was not even that.

Another part of the pivot also went unmentioned – the goal of bringing about a regional trade pact. Here the greatest problem might not be in the region but back at home, where Democrats and, to some extent, Republicans in Congress have abandoned the country’s commitment to free trade. Protectionism and isolationism tend to go hand in hand, and here, too, an opportunity to make a point as to the strategic and economic benefits of expanding trade was forfeited.

The president is right to warn against the folly of isolationism in today’s world, that what happens beyond the country’s borders can and will affect what takes place within them.

And he is right to suggest that American leadership is indispensable, that international order will not come about without it.

However this requires that the American people are prepared to back such a role for their country, and that American friends and foes alike see it as predictable and steadfast.

Unfortunately, Mr Obama’s statements this week will do little to help accomplish these tasks.

The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of ‘Foreign Policy Begins at Home’