President Obama has been criticized by partisan groups and opposition politicians with various epitaphs, all of which say “failure”. What most critics allege simply do not conform with reality, or lack the credibility of what they would differently. That does not, however, lead to the conclusion that his Presidency ranks along side Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln’s. At least not yet.
Candidate Obama spoke passionately of fixing what had gone wrong with the Bush Administration. Policies like the Patriot Act where librarians could not reveal government searches of their records, or enhanced interrogation methods, a euphemism for torture, or indefinite detention without charges, or the invasion of a sovereign country, or the establishment of an off-shore gulag called Guantanamo Detention Facility would be gone, candidate Obama said.
How could the US have strayed so far from its historic past, he wondered?
The words “over reach” have been used to describe the Bush foreign policy, but how exactly was President Obama to get control when he inherited two wars, numerous assaults on individual liberties, and the largest economic recession since the great depression.
In the cold and turbulent environment of the Oval Office, President Obama quickly learned how difficult it was to actual steer the ship of State. At the highest levels of government there are men and women of strong opinions. Outside of government there are many more groups also holding strong opinions. A President Obama, like President Bush, has had to make decisions in this environment.
The President told the 2014 graduating West Point class that US foreign policy would be focused upon defeating “terror groups”. This was somewhat disappointing to hear since it sounded so much like “war on terror”, a meaningless phrase.
For countries such as Japan, the Philippines, India, and most of Europe, I wonder what they understood this to mean considering the ambitions of Russia and China?
I think the President was trying to say “the US is stepping back” (from over reach) and “will strike out only against organized global terror organizations”. No more invasions and occupations of sovereign lands, no more over reach. Hmmm.
President Obama has (as does any President) the daunting task of defining a sensible US foreign policy. If you listen to political opponents, President Obama’s approach is too hands off and unclear in terms of what the US is willing to commit. When these critics are asked what they would do, they have either offered internally inconsistent responses like show military force but would not commit feet on the ground, or they simply bluster about moving military assets threateningly close to where ever the hot spot might be.
Fortunately, the President recognizes how nuanced the world is and how a cautious approach is justified on that basis alone. I believe he see another reason which is even more fundamental. Foreign policy makes sense only when built upon a clear statement of national interests and goals.
Politicians huff and puff about restoring the American Dream or building the economy so there are jobs for everyone. Worthy goals.
Collectively these same politicians, however, cannot agree upon how to balance the budget, even while the infrastructure continues to decay, education lags behind world standards, and healthcare costs soar.
If a nuanced approached is viewed as appeasement, this is probably not an acceptable answer. Just as poor an option is “act now, think later”. Events since the invasion and occupation of Iraq should demonstrate that military involvement brings far too many unanticipated and unintended consequences.
The President’s West Point speech did not nail the subject and offer total clarity on what US foreign policy will be. I think the President was “buying time”.
He felt, I think, he needed to dress up his “leading from behind” approach in some broader context. I hope he realizes the connection between consensus on domestic policy and articulating foreign policy. Without agreement on what the government spends and how it raises the money to cover those costs, the ability to finance foreign involvement will be questionable. Even more to the point, why will Americans care about any foreign land if they feel excluded from the American dream?
Then again the lack of consensus on domestic matters can only support a non-specific foreign policy. Maybe President Obama understands this better than most.