Monday, June 2, 2014

No regrets - Obama sticks to his checkered foreign policy path

Barack Obama never ceases to disappoint. His speech at West Point on Wednesday, portrayed as a major statement on foreign policy, was in fact a whimper sold as a bang.

Six years into an eight-year presidency, Obama essentially restated major foreign policy themes already associated with him. Little new was revealed, and there was no sense that the president sought to correct past errors. His speech was mainly a justification of what he has done until now, a foreign policy counteroffensive amid mounting criticism from some quarters.

But if Obama stuck to his guns, it is undoubtedly because he felt that a majority of Americans agreed with him that their country must be implicated less in resolving overseas problems.

Yet the president also declared, “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option.” True, but isolationism is as much a state of mind as anything else. It may not be realistic in an integrated world; however, what is possible, and present today, is an American attitude that invariably tends to stray away from most foreign interventions.

When it is implied that all such interventions are potentially dangerous because they may lead to large military commitments, things becomes stifling. In Syria, for instance, Obama has from the start misrepresented the stakes, implying that if America entered the fray, it could soon find itself in a new Iraq war. The reality is that there always was a menu of options such that, even if the American military was deployed, it could have kept the risk of being caught in a quagmire at a minimum. Establishing no-fly zones was an example.

Most remarkable was Obama’s need to mouth the platitudes of American greatness. Because American values inspire people worldwide, the president declared, “the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.”

It is difficult to identify precisely what values Obama was thinking about. If America can stand idly by while a tyrant slaughters over a hundred thousand of his own citizens; if 60 percent of Americans can oppose any action against Syria after Bashar al-Assad fired chemical weapons at civilians in the Ghouta last summer, even though 75 percent of respondents said they thought Assad’s forces had indeed used such weapons; after all this, then American values are really about indifference.

The president’s use of the term “indispensable nation” was equally surprising. Much of Obama’s efforts in the past six years have been to underline that the world should not expect America to play a role everywhere while the country focused on rebuilding its economy. Indeed Vali Nasr, who served in Obama’s first term, wrote a book very critical of the president’s foreign policy titled, you guessed it, “The Dispensable Nation.”

Obama’s comments on Syria came mainly in the context of the president’s vow to fight terrorism. Obama did say that the United States must “help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people.” But he added, “In helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.”

America’s self-centered obsession with terrorism is understandable, but as David Ignatius, who is often gentle when discussing Obama, bitingly observed: “Surely the president recognizes that terrorism has a deadly new face in Syria in part because he turned down a mid-2012 recommendation to train moderate opposition forces to counter the extremists.”

There has been much speculation about what Washington might do to assist “moderate” Syrian rebels, but, strangely, Obama did not see fit to mention specifics. Perhaps that’s because the president did not want to embarrass Jordan, which would doubtless host American efforts in this regard. Or it could be that Obama did not want to offset the general tenor of his speech by outlining what could be a controversial decision to increase America’s contribution to Syria’s war.

But the reality is that Obama has still not wrapped his mind around Syria, and remains uncertain how an anti-terrorism focus can coexist with a broader effort to alter the environment that allows terrorist groups to gain in strength. Obama faced a similar dilemma in Afghanistan, and reacted in contradictory ways: he initially advanced a counter-insurgency project that included elements of nation-building; he then reversed course to focus on a less ambitious counter-terrorism strategy.

High policy aside, Obama’s primary preoccupation in his West Point speech may have been the congressional elections next November. The president expects to be hammered by the Republicans over his indecisive foreign policy. By clarifying his thinking on the matter, of which many Americans are bound to approve, Obama may have sought to blunt future criticism.

One can only admire Obama’s skill over the past six years in selling his foreign policy snake oil to a largely-sedated American people. But that approval has also frayed somewhat in light of the president’s lack of initiative and imagination, so that even the Washington Post’s editorial board can write that Obama’s foreign policy has “been consistent – consistently bad.”

The West Point speech was a perfect illustration. It told us nothing we didn’t know, and much we would rather not know.

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