President Barack Obama -- who today at West Point offered a recalibration of his foreign policy -- has made no catastrophic missteps in his conduct of foreign policy over his term-and-a-half in office. (Yes, I know -- Benghazi. Thank you.)
The Middle East peace process was mishandled, particularly during Obama’s first term, but it's hard to blame Israeli-Palestinian dysfunction on any American president. Syria may turn into a national-security calamity for the U.S. (It's already a moral calamity for the entire civilized world.) But American troops aren’t dying, and Syrian chemical weapons aren’t being used against American allies.
American troops continue not to die in Iraq. American troops are exiting Afghanistan with, so far at least, limited consequence. The Iran nuclear talks may not succeed, but trying to resolve this crisis peacefully is indispensably important -- even if only to justify later, more dramatic, responses to the Iranian threat. It's politically risky as well, and the president should be praised for trying.
A nationalist Russia has not been completely contained by the U.S. and its Western allies, but no would-be president -- not John McCain or Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton -- would have developed a military option that could have prevented the conquest of Crimea. North Korea remains insane, but again, it’s unlikely that any other occupant of the Oval Office would have had better luck managing the threat it poses. China is flexing its muscles, but U.S. alliances across Asia are strong, and in some cases getting stronger. (Obama gets little to no credit for reopening the Philippines to a regular U.S. naval presence, and the U.S. now has a permanent Marine Corps contingent stationed in northern Australia.)
There are more than 35,000 U.S. military personnel in and around the Gulf. Pakistan, unaccountably, is quiet. So far, Obama has prevented the nightmare he worries about most -- the marriage of weapons of mass destruction to global jihadism. His administration is developing a counterterrorism strategy designed to address the challenge of metastasizing al-Qaeda franchises.
Things could go dangerously wrong on all of these issues (this Washington Post editorial makes a provocative case against Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal), but so far Obama has not driven the U.S. into a Middle East ditch or into the South China Sea.
And yet Obama's foreign policy is seen -- at least in Washington, among people who talk about these things -- as aimless, equivocal, and a projection of weakness and decline. White House officials think this is so in large part because the president, as a natural reaction to what they view as the overreach of his predecessor, has been hesitant to use force -- most notably in Syria, where he chose at the last minute not to punish President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons. It could be argued that Obama's hesitation was grounded in an unfortunate reality: In an interview earlier this year, Obama warned against overmilitarizing the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world. Engagement in Syria he said, “would have meant that we would have the third, or if you count Libya, the fourth war in a Muslim country in the span of a decade.”
There is merit to much of the White House’s analysis of his image problem, but Obama and his top aides are missing something about the way he is understood, at home and abroad. It is not true, as some of his critics allege, that he is uninterested in foreign policy. He is very interested and can talk for hours with great fluidity on the subject. But when he talks -- not necessarily in grand settings, such as today’s speech -- but with foreign leaders, Congress and the news media, he often sounds as if he’s auditioning for the role of foreign-policy analyst on the PBS "NewsHour." It's all logic and dispassion and half-measures.
Foreign policy, for him, is a management challenge: containing threats, quieting unhappy allies, limiting damage. There is no particular vision associated with his detached, cold-eyed approach to foreign affairs. He recently described his policy this way: “You hit singles; you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”
This is an accurate rendering of presidential reality, and yet it is strikingly unambitious, especially from a politician who initially promised so much. Obama is not the analyst in chief. He sometimes seems hesitant to set lofty goals -- stopping the slaughter in Syria, rolling back the advance of autocracy -- because he's afraid that the words would commit him to action. This is understandable, given the rhetorical and actual overreach seen during George W. Bush's first term. And yet setting impossible goals, shining-city-on-a-hill goals, speaks to the noblest part of the American experience. No, this does not mean the deployment of U.S. forces to fix problems that don’t need a military fix. It means looking for ways to advance the cause of freedom, which is the traditional role of the U.S. in the world.
The White House has faced a strange conundrum for some time: Polls show that many Americans want a more modest foreign policy -- or at least one that does not go out looking for fights. Obama is giving people what they say they want. And yet his approval ratings remain generally low.
The best explanation for this seeming contradiction comes from Robert Kagan, who wrote recently that Americans “may prefer a minimalist foreign policy in which the United States no longer plays a leading role in the world and leaves others to deal with their own miserable problems. They may want a more narrowly self-interested American policy. In short, they may want what Obama so far has been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.”
On domestic issues -- health care, most notably -- Obama sets grand goals. They may not all be attained, but he sets them anyway. I don’t want to see overreach in foreign policy. But more ambition and a bit more idealism? Over the past year, I’ve visited almost two dozen countries. Generally speaking, these countries -- their leaders and people -- want more American leadership in the world, not less.
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