There isn’t much written or said in defense of President Obama’s foreign policy, especially for the liberal base that voted for him expecting a rapid exit from seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has at times been characterized as feckless and at other times relentlessly committed to the previous administration’s perpetual war philosophy. However, there are elements of his policy that can be teased from the blizzard of events that are actually positive for liberals.
There are more than just a few examples.
- Circumstance and policy have forced Syria’s neighboring states to commit troops and resources to combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since the U.S. has had no success with its intervention, this development is really the only policy for the region that has a chance of creating a stable outcome.
- The impending deal with Iran over nuclear weapons is a game changer and offers a new paradigm in Middle Eastern regional politics. A Shiite Iran confronting a Sunni Saudi Arabia may lead to conflict, but it might also lead to shared regional hegemony and allow the U.S. to withdraw, especially since U.S. reliance on Mideast oil is no longer an issue.
- Playing the bad cop in confronting Russian expansion in Eastern Europe has provided an opening for European leaders to dial down the potentially explosive confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- Asserting a leading role in climate change and getting the Chinese to go along was a masterful stroke of timing since China can no longer afford to excuse itself from the environmental challenges it faces and the U.S. will not lead unless there is a compelling reason to do so.
- The U.S. threat of confrontation indirectly and directly pressed China to moderate its territorial claims in the South China Sea and has led to partial resolution of issues with surrounding countries.
- Inching toward India over Pakistan puts the U.S. in a much better tactical position to negotiate tension-reducing measures between these two antagonists, both of which are armed with nuclear missiles.
- Setting the stage for change in the U.S. disposition toward Cuba is just common sense, but it took courage to start the process.
Some may not feel these are accomplishments, but taken in context, they are not inconsequential. It is far too often the case that liberals fail to take context into account. They are not alone; almost every American similarly fails irrespective of political disposition. But context is important, since a president coming into office cannot simply turn on a dime when it comes to foreign policy. There are treaties and pacts governing behavior and obligation to allies and enemies that require resources. There are defense programs essential to the national defense that cannot be dismantled without risk to the security of the country. There is domestic public opinion that can be easily abused to think simplistic solutions are available, as are knee-jerk responses consistent with the cowboy image of America that is the legacy of the Reagan/Bush era.
Just one example. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, George Kennan, probably the most astute foreign policy strategist this country has produced in the last century, suggested that NATO and the Western European nations would be making a grave mistake if they were to build armaments or amass troops on the borders of a decimated Russia. Reason? That country has a long history of being overrun and is paranoid about another invasion. But both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush pursued policies that can be characterized as sticking their proverbial thumbs in the eye of the weakened state by opening the door for many of Russia’s border states to join NATO and the European Union. This was capped by the idiotic move by Bush to build a missile defense base along the Czech border, with missile interceptors placed in Poland. There was little attempt to paper over the threat to Russia’s defense systems. Is it any wonder, then, that Putin, flush with seemingly endless oil revenues, would seek to reassert what used to be termed “spheres of influence” on the borders?
Enter Obama. Russian paranoia is now a given. It has been reinforced by U.S.-backed policy initiatives in Europe. The NATO treaty obligates the U.S. to protect its members, but the liberal base wants to stay out of the fray or withdraw from engagements abroad or reduce the U.S. military presence overseas. How is the president to navigate a circumstance he didn’t create? Obama sounds the alarm as Russia moves into Crimea and privately urges Germany to get involved. Obama’s liberal base starts to sweat, because there was supposed to be a commitment to step away from military solutions. Can you imagine the private glee that must be felt in the White House since the the leaders of France and Germany have stepped into the fray and negotiated terms with Putin over Ukraine? We don’t know how much Obama complicity was involved in this latest move, but the net effect may let the U.S. off the hook from military engagement.
You may want to call Obama feckless and certainly Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would agree, as would just about every Republican in the country. The domestic political scene the president faces is half of the country urging a muscular approach, half opposed. There are strong NATO alliance commitments; an aggressive Russian autocrat both paranoid and needing to distract his constituents from deteriorating economic circumstances; and Obama’s own series of election commitments in need of recognition.
Unfortunately, governing just isn’t simple and yet citizens of this country treat it as such and much of the media reinforce the notion as they fight for the public’s limited attention. We would be the last ones to enthusiastically endorse this president and his administration because there have been so many missed opportunities, so much ineptitude in strategy and leadership, so much hesitation and needless deliberation and such a persistently oblivious attitude toward priorities, but it is not uniformly bad and every so often it deserves recognition, especially amongst those of us who understand how impossibly difficult it is to weave your way between legacy, aspiration and necessity.