Over the past year it has become abundantly clear that President Obama lacks a coherent foreign policy strategy. Although the media has always discussed the president’s foreign policy as the “Obama Doctrine,” it has never been articulated, understood or respected, either at home or by other nations.
At one point the Obama Doctrine was thought to mean moving away from “democracy promotion” to “dignity promotion” in order to stop the furthering of anti-Americanism. Then, following his actions in Libya, it took on the meaning of “liberal interventionism,” which allowed for the prevention of violence if there is an international mandate for action. That perhaps came off a bit too hawkish, so he moved to a strategy of “leading from behind,” which presumably meant we were going to assume a modest role and let other nations take the lead.
But that description also ran into trouble. How is it possible to explain the Obama Administration’s liberal use of drones if we are taking a more reserved role in world affairs? That led some pundits to describe the Obama Doctrine as “security by drone.”
Then President Obama himself jumped in the fray. In an April news conference, after surveying the events going on in the world, Obama laid out an approach that uses economic and diplomatic levers before resorting to armed force.
“That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows,” Obama said. “But it avoids errors. You hit singled, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”
“Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, America will lack the legitimacy and ultimately the power it needs to make the world safer than it is today,” Obama wrote.
That articulation didn’t go over too well either. Although Americans don’t want to be embroiled in another foreign war, they also don’t want to admit that the U.S. is in any way a diminished world power, capable only of playing small ball.
Finally, at a recent, and widely-panned speech to West Point cadets Obama outlined a strategy of “might and right.” By and large he used the speech to eschew extremes of passivity and aggression—neither of which anyone was arguing for—in order to chart a middle course. Obama said we “have to develop a strategy that matches [a] diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.”
If that sounds less like a firm doctrine than an open-ended acknowledgement that they are still working on something, well, that’s because that is exactly what it was.
But that speech was more than three months ago. Surely, given the myriad villains appearing on the world stage—none of which appear willing to give President Obama the time to think of a coordinated plan—the president continues to lack a plan.
That became sadly evident yesterday when President Obama gave perhaps his weakest, most meandering foreign policy talk yet.
In a speech presumably aimed at answering questions about his administration’s approach to deal with Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, Obama only created more. Obama called the Islamic State, or ISIS for short, a “cancer” and admitted that the fight to destroy them “won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.” But as for what that fight looked like? Well Obama has no clue.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse: we don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said of the effort to combat ISIS. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than what we currently are.”
The admission that the White House lacks a strategy earned a swift and forceful rebuke. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, an ardent Obama supporter, tweeted: “I’m normally a fan of Obama but that was a very weak Obama speech and press conference. Only strong suit was his suit.” Time Magazine’s Zeke Miller called it “the worst of Washington gaffes.” The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson sarcastically wrote that the idea that we don’t have a strategy “is the one thing we already knew.” And CNN’s Pentagon correspondent tweeted, “Let me be very clear, ISIS heard all of this.”
Let’s hope voters heard it as well. If America is going to have a coherent foreign policy strategy it looks like it will take a new leader in the White House.