Does President Barack Obama have a modus operandi when it comes to foreign policy? How does the crafting of foreign policy actually work in the Obama White House? Obama appears to have no grand strategy.
While many (including this writer) would acknowledge there were major strategic problems and limitations with the Bush Doctrine, at least George W. Bush’s presidency had a (mildly coherent) vision for the way the U.S. should approach the world beyond its borders. Obama doesn’t seem to value even the pursuit of such a vision. “Leading from behind” is neither an example of leadership nor a strategy. It’s an oxymoronic approach to world affairs that will likely be judged as woefully short-sighted by historians and policymakers alike. One has to believe that Hillary Clinton would have approached foreign policy with less naiveté and more pragmatism.
More specifically, China’s still making big inroads in Africa. And as Edward Luce has recently written, it’s “too little too late” for the Obama administration there. Obama is almost ignoring Latin America entirely. Most disconcerting, of course, has been Obama’s approach in the Middle East and South Asia, which at times looks like the White House has, quite literally, no strategy at all. (Okay, Obama got Bin Laden. That was big and that did require a degree of decisiveness and courage. But a call like that has been an exception to the rule. It’s been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise feckless foreign policy agenda).
Claims that any aspect of Obama’s Syria policy are “Machiavellian” are very hard to believe. Actually, referring to anything Obama’s doing in the Middle East as Machiavellian would be giving the president far too much credit. When Oliver Stone published an op-ed critical of Obama’s policies in the Financial Times, you know that Mr. Obama has really disappointed the Left. But for those on the Right, Obama’s presidency has been nothing short of a complete, irrefutable disaster, a low point in recent American politics that cannot end soon enough.
As an American, it’s both disappointing and disconcerting to face the fact that Obama’s going to be guiding the helm for several more years. Maybe things will change. Maybe he’ll turn things around. It’s possible that John Kerry or – even more likely – Susan Rice could help to provide such an impetus for greater resolve. I really want to believe that’s possible, but an unwillingness to lead isn’t something that one develops overnight.
American foreign policy is now riddled with deep, structural problems and the country’s domestic troubles aren’t making things any easier.
As for Obama’s discomfort with the use of U.S. power, the heart of the president’s problems lie in his proclivity for soaring rhetoric that’s never met with anything that vaguely resembles meaningful action. Capturing the heart of the matter, Walter Russell Mead recently expounded upon this idea in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. According to Mead, “Second-rate orators use flowery language to disguise the conventionality or insincerity of their sentiments, to disguise their true motives, or—and this was the biggest problem for the White House on Syria—to substitute rhetoric for action.”
Obama’s disappointing foreign policy would be less disappointing if the Obama administration’s rhetoric were not so far removed from reality. Having held office for nearly five years, Obama still doesn’t seemed to have grasped the importance of connecting proclamations and speeches with actual policies which can be acted upon. There’s little reason to hope that the Obama administration will suddenly realize how problematic this is. Over the next three years, people shouldn’t expect more coordination between talk and action from the Obama White House.
When it comes to American politics today, finding common ground is increasingly difficult. That said, there does seem to be one broad subject where there’s plenty of space for bipartisan consensus: 2016 can’t get here fast enough.