President Obama’s foreign policy is very similar to his governing strategy – he reacts based on the world as wishes it, not as it actually is. For a few years it seemed a noble endeavor from a political neophyte who cut his teeth as a community organizer. But after the charm wore off, after the cult of personality faded, Obama quickly became an aged Don Quixote tilting against windmills.
Last week’s commencement speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point was supposed to be a turning point, a chance for the president to recapture the narrative and display authority over a world gone amok. Instead, it was just the latest example of the White House attempting to govern through word over deed. As the Washington Post editorial board wrote:
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. That conclusion can be heard not just from Republican hawks but also from senior officials from Singapore to France and, more quietly, from some leading congressional Democrats. As he has so often in his political career, Mr. Obama has elected to respond to the critical consensus not by adjusting policy but rather by delivering a big speech.
It would be one thing if the speech charted a new course or explained how America would retain its dominance in an ever-changing world or even just manage its relationships with up-and-comers like China. Instead President Obama did what he does best: He set up straw men and knocked them down with hearty aplomb.
First, he spoke against hawkish interventionists “who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak” and believe that “every problem has a military solution.”
“A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable,” the president said.
But who is it that believes these things? Certainly not Congress who opposed putting boots on the ground in Ukraine, Syria or the Central African Republic.
Second, he rails against isolationists who “ignore what happens beyond our borders” and avoid totally “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our economic well-being.” As to this fictional band of Congressional doves he says that “in the 21st century American isolationism is not an option.”
“What Obama is doing here is caricaturizing criticism of his foreign policy so he can rebut it more easily,” Max Boot writes for Commentary Magazine. “In particular he is conflating “tough action” with “military action” and “military action” with “boots on the ground.”
But in denigrating his opposition into one of two extreme camps Obama ignores some of the crucial lessons of his presidency. For instance in Syria, Assad is solidifying his grip on power in no small part because the White House refused a recommendation to train moderate opposition forces. The resulting power vacuum created an atmosphere in which extremism could thrive. Or in Russia, where an emboldened Putin continues to push Russian boundaries because of a hesitancy to employ more wide-ranging sanctions or take a more aggressive stance in NATO states. Or in Iraq, where an al Qaeda flag hangs over Fallujah because of a hasty, ill-though-out withdrawal strategy. Regrettably, President Obama used this speech to give yet another arbitrary date by which we would withdraw forces, this time in Afghanistan.
Although President Obama’s waxed eloquent in explaining what he’s against; namely, the military adventurism that led to “some of our more costly mistakes.” He continues to avoid saying what he is for. As Matt K. Lewis wrote for The Telegraph:
Ultimately, Obama’s problem is that he lacks a coherent foreign policy. He is overly fond of theorising, but the hard worldly realities defy his attempts to resolve the messy issues on his desk.
And his foreign policy doctrine is unprecedented in modern America, somewhat arbitrary, ill-conceived, and utterly lacking in moral clarity. More and more, it appears he has reverse engineered a foreign policy, based primarily on doing the opposite of George W. Bush did, as opposed to overtly crafting a wise and coherent foreign policy strategy going forward.
We hoped that’s what President Obama would use his West Point speech to do. But we, and we suspect most of America’s partners looking to Washington for leadership, were left disappointed.