Obama’s new Foreign Policy message: Don’t do stupid

By J Brooks Spector 2 June 2014

President Barack Obama delivered a highly touted speech on his foreign policy vision for the remainder of his second term of office and his views took a bit of a beating both from the usual suspects as well as some of his more usual supporters. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks more closely at the way Obama’s speech was received by American analysts and the media.

On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama gave a highly touted speech on his administration’s foreign policy. This was the keynote for the passing out ceremony of over a thousand new graduates at the US Military Academy at West Point who were on the point of becoming newly minted second lieutenants in the US Army. The main thrust of Obama’s speech seemed designed to draw a line under the first nearly six years of his presidency – and then look forward to the rest of his presidency, outlining what he hopes will be America’s place in the world, going forward.

As Obama clearly sees it, it has been his fate that his presidency has largely been defined, up till now, in foreign policy terms, as dedicated to drawing down on those two wasteful, unnecessary wars he inherited, even as his presidency remains determined to assert a continued US primacy in world affairs, as in that now-oft-quoted phrase, “the indispensible nation,” clearly implies. To complicate things further, this goal is true even as Americans have demonstrated in poll after poll that they were intensely leery of any new and expensive foreign adventures. And this is true even as stubborn, troublesome issues like Iran’s nuclear intentions, the Syrian civil war, tensions with Russia and China’s exuberant drive to assert greater influence Asia are all coming to be central issues for US foreign policy.

Also running through his speech was the insistence that the challenge of non-state terrorism remains a crucial, intransigent problem America will continue to deal with in future. In fact, just that theme triggered the major tangible proposal in Obama’s West Point speech. This was a proposed $5 billion fund that would underpin efforts in tandem with other nations to build up sophisticated counterterrorism efforts. Given the full court press to promote the importance of this speech prior to its delivery, the lack of specific proposals beyond the counterterrorism fund has led to considerable criticism of its content – or, in the critics’ views, a relative lack of that.

In describing how Obama’s White House had been trying to pitch the speech, and its implications, in the June 1st edition of Mike Allen’s “Politico Playbook”, Allen had written, “For those pining for an Obama Doctrine victory for the president, here it is: ‘Don’t Do Stupid Shit.’ Playbook rarely prints a four-letter word – our nephews are loyal readers. But we are, in this case, because that is the precise phrase President Obama and his aides are using in their off-the-record chats with journalists. If the aim was to get this phrase in circulation to define the Obama doctrine, mission accomplished! It appeared in the L.A. Times at the end of Obama’s Asia trip this spring, was reprised in the lead story of Thursday’s New York Times, and is used TWICE in Sunday’s NYT – once in the news columns, and once in a column by Tom Friedman, who was part of an off-the-record roundtable with Obama on Tuesday.”

Allen went on to cite Mark Landler’s article in the New York Times, “ ‘In his second term, a time that presidents typically set about cementing their legacies as statesmen, Mr. Obama has instead settled on a minimalist foreign policy – one that he laid out at West Point and sums up with a saltier version of the phrase, ‘don’t do stupid stuff.’ ‘There is a fundamental and profound distinction between this speech and the earlier speeches,’ said David J. Rothkopf, the publisher of Foreign Policy magazine. ‘The Nobel Prize speech was infused with hope, ambition, and the desire to better the world. This speech is built around the idea of not doing stupid stuff.’ ”

In fact, despite that full court press from the White House, editorial responses to Obama’s speech were surprisingly harsh. They argued it was both incomplete and that it failed to recognize or provide justifications and support for America’s international standing. The New York Times editorial board, often criticized as being something of a cheerleader for this White House, said Obama’s speech “did not match the hype, was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors, on the right or the left.”

It argued Obama had “provided little new insight into how he plans to lead in the next two years and many still doubt that he fully appreciates the leverage the United States has even in a changing world.” It that wasn’t enough of a stripe, it chided the president on his administration’s lack of transparency on targeted killings and intelligence, saying his call for more efforts at transparency was “ludicrous” given his administration’s reluctance so far to provide “even minimal disclosures.” No home field advantage here.

The often unrelentingly critical Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, said the president’s address had been characterised less by what he did say than by what he had managed to leave out. This litany included his administration’s previously heralded pivot to Asia, the rapidly souring relations with Russia, a stalwart defense of the administration’s Syria policy, and any discussion of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – among many other issues. The WSJ wrapped up its annoyance, saying, “We know that no foreign policy speech can cover the entire world. But listening to Mr. Obama trying to assemble a coherent foreign policy agenda from the record of the past five years was like watching Tom Hanks trying to survive in ‘Cast Away’: Whatever’s left from the wreckage will have to do.”

And over at The Washington Post, yet another frequent defender of the president, it editorialised the president’s “binding of U.S. power places Mr. Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II. 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,” the paper argued. It took issue with the president for drawing upon rhetoric instead of carrying out adjustments to policies. The paper added Obama had delivered “scant comfort” to anyone concerned about his policies on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine – including presumably those in those various nations that had felt inclined towards aligning with America. Ouch, again.

And surprisingly, too, many of the scholars at the usually liberal, Democratic-leaning Brookings Institution think tank were reluctant to cut the president much slack either. William Galston wrote, “Mr. Obama devoted a total of four sentences, scattered through the text, to China —less than what he spent on Burma…. The world we now inhabit is the world that the United States of America took the lead in building after World War II. It is a world in which our interests and values have a better chance of flourishing than in any of the alternatives. And it is a world that requires American effort and sacrifice to sustain. If the United States is, as Mr. Obama insists, the ‘one indispensable nation,’ are we prepared to do what is necessary to maintain that role?”

Another, Michael O’Hanlon, appeared on a WSJ Live broadcast. saying, “In terms of explaining exactly what he’s up to, in terms of finding a way to connect his big, visionary speeches of a few of years ago to the day-to-day handling of the in box, I’m not sure today’s speech helped all that much. The president explained why he can’t use military force for each and every problem, and that was fine. But he didn’t exactly explain how he makes his decisions. The best new idea of course was this $5 billion fund for counterterrorism training throughout the broader Middle East, and I support that. But I’m still skeptical that he is going to do enough in regard to Syria and Libya, where so far his policies I think have been a bit lacking in follow through.”

Thomas Wright then added, Obama’s speech “is likely to raise additional concerns in the United States and allied nations,” noting it “fell short in at least four respects: First, this was a speech dominated by the legacy of 9/11 and largely neglected the rebalance to Asia…. Second, the president failed to explain how he will use non-military tools to exercise leadership in the international order. Astonishingly, he did not mention trade once…. Third, the president gave little indication that he understands the challenge posed by Russian and Chinese revisionism in Eastern Europe and East Asia…. Finally, the president did not explain what international legitimacy for intervention means in an age where Russia, and probably China, will not approve such action in the U.N. Security Council….”

Looking at the slight attention to the topics the president did discuss such as the possibilities of success in dealing with Iran, Suzanne Maloney said, “Obama runs several risks in exalting the Iran accord as the epitome of his multilateralist foreign policy,” as “his near-preemptive declaration of victory on the Iran nuclear issue may yet come back to haunt him, if negotiators continue to run into difficulties….”

As the week wore on, prominent columnists began to pile on as well. Republican-oriented writers – especially of the neo-conservative and activist internationalist persuasion – were under-appreciative. Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard (virtually a neo-con safe house) as well as a contributor to the Financial Mail, wrote Obama’s speech attempted to bring together two mutually incompatible perspectives. Yes, it was true “Changing US foreign policy after George W Bush’s two terms is the main thing he was elected to do. He has done it.” However, “Mr Obama’s problem is different. When he says ‘America must always lead on the world stage’, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. But such leadership comes at a price, and he is disinclined to pay it. He proposed bombing Syria at a point last year when Bashar al-Assad was alleged to have used chemical weapons but then abandoned the idea in the face of voter rage.”

Caldwell acknowledged Obama’s reluctance to engage in the use of international force paralleled popular opinion on the subject, but that, nevertheless, “the goal of Wednesday’s speech was to arrive at a doctrine that would present this downscaling of responsibilities as something other than a retreat. Mr Obama did this by dividing US responsibilities into two kinds: national defence and ‘issues of global concern’, from counterterrorism to climate change. It is this second group of issues that really animated the president. He is proposing that the US, through skillful use of international organisations, can exercise undiminished influence over the affairs of men, at diminished cost in blood and treasure.”

But Caldwell argued Obama was effectively trying to square the circle. “He is proposing that the US, through skillful use of international organisations, can exercise undiminished influence over the affairs of men, at diminished cost in blood and treasure. It amounts to eating your cake and having it – an unrealistic foreign policy, and the very one Mr Obama’s voters have asked for.”

Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations and a kind of chairman of the board for internationalist Republicans, argued although he was broadly sympathetic to much in Obama’s speech, “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.”

Haass added, “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.”

Haass went on to argue, “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…. 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.”

It seemed to fall upon Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center and CNN commentator and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria to rise to Obama’s defense. Miller argued, “Forget what the punditocracy thinks. On most of this stuff, Obama is on the verge of accomplishing all these goals. These are his priorities, whether we like it or not. And while the public apparently isn’t pleased with his policies, they are actually more displeased with those who would have the country do and risk more abroad.

As presidential speeches go – barring the line about the president’s commitment to America as an indispensable nation… it lays out a pretty faithful and accurate vision of how the president sees the world. And let’s be clear: It’s a world with narrowed options for American power. This is a president convinced that most of the challenges America faces don’t have easy solutions; instead, they have unpredictable outcomes. But many Americans still cling to the notion that their country can do what it wants, when it wants. Clearly, Obama doesn’t believe the United States can hit these home runs…. But if Guantanamo is closed, if a compelling deal with Iran is made, if a robust and effective counterterrorism policy is maintained that deters and hunts down al Qaeda, if Putin is checked in Eastern Europe, and if Bashar al-Assad is weakened over time, that would be pretty good.”

And in noting the end of a half century of existential threats to America, Zakaria wrote today’s “world today looks very different — far more peaceful and stable than at any point in decades and, by some measures, centuries…. The countries that recently have been aggressive or acted as Washington’s adversaries are getting significant pushback. Russia has alienated Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Western Europe with its recent aggression, for which the short-term costs have grown and the long-term costs — energy diversification in Europe — have only begun to build. China has scared and angered almost all of its maritime neighbors, with each clamoring for greater U.S. involvement in Asia. Even a regional foe such as Iran has found that the costs of its aggressive foreign policy have mounted…. what is needed from Washington is not a heroic exertion of American military power but rather a sustained effort to engage with allies, isolate enemies, support free markets and democratic values and push these positive trends forward. The Obama administration is, in fact, deeply internationalist…. The administration has fought al-Qaeda and its allies ferociously. But it has been disciplined about the use of force, and understandably so. An America that exaggerates threats, overreacts to problems and intervenes unilaterally would produce the very damage to its credibility that people are worried about.”

Zakaria argued further, “Obama is battling a knee-jerk sentiment in Washington in which the only kind of international leadership that means anything is the use of military force. ‘Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,’ he said in his speech Wednesday at West Point. A similar sentiment was expressed in the farewell address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a strong leader who refused to intervene in the Suez crisis, the French collapse in Vietnam, two Taiwan Strait confrontations and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. …. [Despite criticism] Eisenhower kept his powder dry, confident that force was not the only way to show strength. ‘I’ll tell you what leadership is,’ he told his speechwriter. ‘It’s persuasion — and conciliation — and education — and patience . It’s long, slow, tough work…. Maybe that’s the Obama Doctrine.”

Zakaria has, it seems, winnowed out the “dirty” little secret at the heart of Obama’s ideas. As a result, in many ways, Obama’s administration can be seen as a contemporary reincarnation of Eisenhower’s moderate, centrist government. It was administration that understood limits, kept foreign engagements – largely – in check, ended a lengthy, costly war, choosing for the most part to keep out of new foreign quarrels.

Last year, this writer argued the unifying thread to the Obama foreign policy approach was “constrainment” – a more supple version of containment that recognised the limits of power and that existential threats were not in the wars he had inherited from his ill-fated predecessor. As we had written this term, first offered by two reluctantly approving neocons, Douglas Feith and Seth Cropsey, in an article in Commentary seemed to be an unexpected understanding not everything was possible for America to do on its own. Feith and Cropsey argued Obama may have figured out a reasonable path forward between isolationism and riding off on more international crusades than could be supported with the tools at hand and some issues should be handled by ‘leading from the rear’ (such as letting multilateral institutions take the lead, as in Libya). It was, in fact, a doctrine in keeping with the straitened financial times of the government, the continuing disagreements with Congress over budgets, and a still-weak economic recovery. If this is true, perhaps Barack Obama’s biggest “sin” is in having stolen the essence of a Republican idol’s policies and put them into effect a half-century later at a different time. DM

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the commencement ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, May 28, 2014. Obama’s commencement address here is the first in a series of speeches that he and top advisers will use to explain U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and lay out a broad vision for the rest of his presidency. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Read more:

  • Obama’s Foreign Policy: How will ‘Constrainment’ work in 2016? in Daily Maverick;

  • Edit pages pan Obama speech at Politico.com;

  • Fighting talk amid the shrinking of American might at the Financial Times, a column by Christopher Caldwell;

  • Obama has to stop prevaricating on foreign policy, a column by Richard Haass at the Financial Times;

  • Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats in the New York Times;

  • Full transcript of President Obama’s commencement address at West Point in the Washington Post;

  • Obama’s leadership is right for today, a column by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post;

  • Brookings Experts React to President Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech at West Point at the Brookings Institution website;

  • Obama’s West Point Speech Is Our Problem, Not His, a column by Aaron David Miller for the Wilson Center website;

  • Barack Obama and Afghanistan – Clock-watching at the Economist;

  • President Obama Misses a Chance on Foreign Affairs, a New York Times editorial;

  • U.S. Sway in Asia Is Imperiled as China Challenges Alliances, in New York Times;

  • China Accuses U.S. and Japan of Sowing Discord in Asia-Pacific, in New York Times;

  • The president explains what America should do with its armed forces, in the Economist;

  • Krauthammer: Obama’s West Point speech was ‘literally pointless’ in Fox News;

  • Obama’s Big, New Counterterrorism Plan Is a Hot Mess, a column in Foreign Policy by Gordon Adam.

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