Obama's approach to foreign policy
He either doesn’t care about it, or he’s afraid of it.

Reuters

President Barack Obama waves from Air Force One as he departs Haneda International Airport in Tokyo April 25, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • I think we all know what Barack Obama’s foreign-policy strategy coming into office was.

    Tweet This

  • The problem, of course, is that Obama never had a Plan B.

    Tweet This

  • In Obama's 1st term, his top priority was to keep international problems from distracting from his domestic agenda.

    Tweet This

I think we all know what Barack Obama’s foreign-policy strategy coming into office was.

Step 1: Be Barack Obama (and not George W. Bush).

Step 2: ????

Step 3: World peace!

(With apologies to South Park.)

As a candidate, Obama held a huge campaign rally in, of all places, Berlin, touting his bona fides as a citizen of the world. The crowd went wild, as he talked at length about a world without walls (you had to be there). As president, in his first major speech abroad, Obama suggested to a Cairo audience that the fact America elected him was all the proof anyone should need that America had turned the page.

It all seems very strange now in retrospect, but in his defense, you can understand how seductive this notion must have been. The whole world — at least the parts of it that Obama listens to — was telling him that replacing George W. Bush with Barack Obama was just the ticket for what ailed the planet. The fervor was all so detached from facts on the ground that the Nobel Committee even gave Obama a Peace Prize for the stuff they were sure he was going to do, eventually. (One clue that Obama’s cult of personality didn’t actually translate into tangible results on the world stage should have been his failure to win the 2016 Olympics for his hometown of Chicago, despite being the first president to personally lobby for it.)

The problem, of course, is that Obama never had a Plan B. He never really thought he’d need one, and besides, he never much cared about foreign policy. Particularly in his first term, his top priority was to keep international problems from distracting from his domestic agenda. He ordered the surge in Afghanistan but then went silent about that war for years. He passive-aggressively let a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq evaporate. Even his controversial policies — targeted killing, drones, etc. — were intended to turn the war on terrorism into a no-drama technocratic affair out of the headlines.

And the killing of Osama bin Laden, his greatest foreign-policy accomplishment (I’m using “his” advisedly), was almost immediately translated into an argument about domestic priorities.

“We obviously think that if there is a takeaway from it,” White House press secretary Jay Carney explained in the immediate aftermath of bin Laden’s assassination, “it is the resolve [Obama] has, the focus he brings to bear on long-term objectives, that he keeps pushing to get it done. On immigration reform he keeps pushing . . . ” Blah, blah, blah. For a verbal pirouette, Carney’s segue had all the subtlety of Chris Farley in a tutu.

The real takeaway from such statements, and from Obama’s whole approach to foreign policy, is that he doesn’t care about it, or he’s afraid of it. He issued a red line in Syria until his bluff was called. He’s let our ally, the Philippines, fend for itself as China tries to annex Scarborough Shoal. He’s made it clear to the Iranians that he considers talking its own reward, since that will likely kick the hard decision about their nuclear program onto the next president’s desk. When Vladimir Putin began his invasion and annexation of Crimea, Obama mumbled a soft denunciation and then hustled downtown to a DNC rally, telling the crowd, “Well, it’s Friday, it’s after 5:00. So this is officially happy hour with the Democratic party.”

Such things are noticed. This is the foreign-policy equivalent of being an ugly American. President Obama is in Japan to assure the increasingly nervous Japanese that we will honor our commitments to them, even as the Chinese become ever-more brazen about filling the vacuum America is leaving behind. This is worthwhile. So is his tardy decision to reassure our increasingly nervous NATO allies in Poland and three Baltic states by sending some token troops for an exercise.

But while these are good and necessary gestures, they are necessary in no small part because it is only now dawning on the president that he should have had a Plan B all along.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 20
    MON
  • 21
    TUE
  • 22
    WED
  • 23
    THU
  • 24
    FRI
Monday, October 20, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Warfare beneath the waves: The undersea domain in Asia

We welcome you to join us for a panel discussion of the undersea military competition occurring in Asia and what it means for the United States and its allies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters

AEI’s Election Watch is back! Please join us for two sessions of the longest-running election program in Washington, DC. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
What now for the Common Core?

We welcome you to join us at AEI for a discussion of what’s next for the Common Core.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, October 23, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Brazil’s presidential election: Real challenges, real choices

Please join AEI for a discussion examining each candidate’s platform and prospects for victory and the impact that a possible shift toward free-market policies in Brazil might have on South America as a whole.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.