Mr. President, Leave the Strawman in Manila

Mr. President, Leave the Strawman in Manila

President Barack Obama’s defensive remarks yesterday in Manila trying to explain his foreign policy strategy have garnered substantial headlines. His refusal to describe any strategic principles and priorities was notable, as was this lament:

Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force … why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? … Frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.

The president’s comments were revealing of how he perceives himself and his approach to national security. Part of that self-image depends on a continuing caricature of his predecessor, George W. Bush. As a partisan matter this is not surprising, given that a big part of then-Senator Obama’s campaign success in 2008 came from his critique of the Bush foreign policy. However, now that Obama is well into his second term, it is evident to just about everyone except those willfully trapped in the White House bubble that the sell-by date of the strawman expired long ago.

For those willing to take a closer, more objective look, the Obama foreign policy has actually been more militarized than the president acknowledges, while the Bush foreign policy was much less militarized than the current White House caricatures of it. Yesterday I gave a lecture on the recent decades of American foreign policy, and I began by asking the audience these two questions:

First, which American president did all of the following?

  • Launched a war without Congressional authorization against a Middle Eastern dictator accused of WMD possession and tyrannizing his own people, then failed to plan for post-conflict reconstruction while terrorists proliferated and the country fell into chaos;
  • engaged in unilateral use of force and targeted killings without U.N. sanction against suspected terrorists, including American citizens;
  • made extraordinary claims for executive power as commander-in-chief;
  • called for the spread of democracy in the Middle East;
  • kept terrorist suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay.

The answer is President Obama.

Second, which American president did all of the following?

  • Resisted strong appeals to attack Syria over its WMD program;
  • refused to attack Iran over its nuclear program, while instead pursuing multilateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
  • refused to attack North Korea over its nuclear program, while instead pursuing multilateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
  • worked to close Guantanamo Bay;
  • signed an agreement with the government of Iraq for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

The answer is President George W. Bush.

Lest the above be misconstrued, of course many of the bullet points that I ascribe to one administration could easily be applied to the other. Obama has also refused to use force on many occasions, and Bush invaded Iraq and pursued an aggressive counterterrorism policy. My point is simply that caricatures depend on cherry-picking a few data points, rather than doing the harder work of evaluating the full range of an Administration’s policies. Obama no doubt hopes that today’s pundits and tomorrow’s scholars will take such a fair and comprehensive approach in studying his administration. It would help if he would do the same for his predecessor.

The president’s larger reluctance to articulate a doctrine or set of principles guiding his foreign policy is understandable on one level, as such doctrines can be overrated and unduly confining. But in the case of this administration, I continue to worry that it reflects a continuing approach to national security policy that is reactive, ad hoc, and unduly shaped by domestic political concerns. I have suggested before that the search for an "Obama Doctrine" is futile since Obama himself has not devoted sufficient attention to foreign policy to develop one. His dismissive response to the press query is perhaps an inadvertent confirmation of this theory. Hopefully the Administration’s forthcoming National Security Strategy will help answer some of these questions.

There is one other irony in the president’s lament yesterday about the criticisms of his foreign policy. Contrary to his caricature, his administration’s main failing has not been the refusal to employ American military force, but rather a failure of diplomacy. Effective diplomacy includes the full spectrum of tools ranging from personal relationships with foreign leaders, to making credible commitments with allies and adversaries, to robust economic measures (including the carrots of free trade agreements and the sticks of sanctions), to security assistance that does not involve American forces. A common denominator across the range of challenges facing this White House — including Syria, Ukraine, Iran, and Asia — has been the insufficient use of robust diplomacy. Addressing that deficit would be a good start in redeeming the final two and a half years of the administration.