Obama shapes foreign policy from an American cocoon


President Obama speaks on the unfolding situation in Egypt and calls for an end to violence, August 15, 2013

Article Highlights

  • When 2 foreign policy experts with different perspectives produce very similar analyses of a president's foreign policy, it's usually wise to take notice.

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  • In his 2009 Cairo speech Obama sought to engage directly not with Egypt but "with the followers of an entire faith tradition."

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  • Obama has shown a cold indifference to human rights in Iran, Russia and China and an unwillingness to act in the Middle East.

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When two foreign policy experts with quite different perspectives produce interestingly similar analyses of a president's foreign policy, it's usually wise to take notice.

The two authors are Robert Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor, writing in realclearworld.com, and Elliott Abrams, an appointee in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations now at the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in the September issue of Commentary.
Kaplan has traveled to trouble distant lands and can be labeled a realist. But he also thinks presidents should have an "overriding vision" of how they want to shape and influence the world.

Policy toward any one nation or region should be shaped "with a larger purpose in mind," he writes. "There must be a specific moral and geographic logic that governs America's approach to the world."

He concedes that Barack Obama's foreign policy "is not at all terrible," but says it lacks this sense of purpose. All he finds is this: "I am not George W. Bush. He started wars. I will end them. I will kill individual terrorists as they crop up. That's all, thank you."

Abrams is usually placed in the neoconservative camp, by admirers as well as critics. But like Kaplan he sees something unusual in Obama's foreign policy. It is, he writes, "strangely self-centered, focused on himself and the United States rather than on the conduct and needs of the nations the United States allies with, engages with or must confront."

He focuses on key Obama foreign policy speeches -- and finds little there there. He notes that Obama called for a "new era of engagement" in his 2009 State of the Union speech.

That included a stated willingness to talk to leaders of nations which are enemies (Iran) and or not entirely friendly (Russia). But, more strikingly, in his 2009 Cairo speech he sought to engage directly not with Egypt but "with the followers of an entire faith tradition."

"This," he writes with a perceptibly arched eyebrow, "was an innovation." You can see how well it is working out by looking at recent Pew Research polling in Muslim nations. (Hint: not well.)

Abrams harks back to Obama's 2008 Berlin speech, when he called himself "a fellow citizen of the world," and what goals a believer in "global citizenship" would pursue. His answers: relieving political oppression and meeting "the daily challenges of poverty and disease."

In Obama's policies he sees a "startling lack of concern on either front." Obama has shown a cold indifference to human rights in Iran, Russia and China and an unwillingness to act (except for "leading from behind" in Libya) in the Middle East.

He has largely ignored Africa and has left leading aid organizations without leaders for years. When he finally traveled there he discovered that Africans seem more grateful for George W. Bush's $18 billion AIDS program than for anything he has done.

Abrams does concede that Obama has hunted down terrorists relentlessly. But, he says, no other aspect of his foreign policy seems "to be dedicated to maximizing American power and national security interests."

He points to defense spending cuts, moves to eliminate nuclear weapons, responses to disorder in the Middle East.

Obama, he concludes, has neither an idealist nor a realist foreign policy, nor one that just slavishly follows public opinion. But unlike Kaplan he does see a guiding purpose to Obama's foreign policy.

"The lesson Obama has learned," he writes, "and wishes to teach others, is that the exercise of American power, with the sole exception of direct strikes on al Qaeda terrorists, should be avoided for practical and moral reasons."

Obama believes, he says, "American leadership is a dangerous narcotic," and "we require more strenuous efforts from our leaders to hold us back."

This is a departure, Abrams argues, not just from George W. Bush; almost every president tries to avoid the mistakes of his immediate predecessor.

It is a departure from presidential practice that goes back to the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt intuited the threat Hitler posed to civilization, and even farther -- to the early days of the Republic, when the Founders built and dispatched a navy to protect American merchants from the Barbary pirates.

Two harsh assessments. The public seems to agree. A Rasmussen poll shows only 39 percent of Americans approve of Obama's foreign policy. Maybe because it's not very American.

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About the Author


  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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