In a Mother Jones article last September, authors Tim Murphy and Tasneem Raja listed all the wars John McCain would have gotten us into or for which he advocated the use of force in recent years. Barack Obama, who defeated presidential candidate McCain in the 2008, got us into none. Earlier this month, the president delivered a major foreign policy speech at the West Point graduation. The contrast between his views and those of consistent hawks like McCain could not be greater. I think Obama’s overriding approach was best summed up with these lines:
…military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.
Not every problem is a nail can be seen as a rebuke to his presidential predecessor, but perhaps more so to the hawks like McCain, including some members of his own party. In fact, much of America’s foreign policy over the years — until recently largely bi-partisan — has been driven by the assumption that our hammer should be held out to strike at any and all nails, real or imagined. To be sure, other presidents have paid lip service to restraint, but far too often we have relied on the hammer, which has not always been used wisely.
During the time of his stewardship, Obama’s foreign policy might be best describe as one of robust caution. If Bill Clinton’s motto was “it’s the economy stupid” Obama’s has been driven by the principle, “don’t do stupid stuff”. It’s no accident that he quoted Dwight Eisenhower, another Pointer, to the assembled graduates. “War”, the fabled general said, “is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly.” While often reiterating that we leave all options on the table, Obama clearly does not want to take the country to war under his watch. Members on the Hill may bluster about intervention in everything from Syria to Ukraine, but the American public has no stomach for it. Not only do they in fact, agree with him, they have scant interest in foreign affairs and that’s nothing new.
I always am somewhat amused when reading or hearing the results of polls on foreign affairs, and specifically on the president’s approval rating in that regard — they are currently very low. Let’s be honest, most Americans even those who consider themselves “informed” (myself included) would be hard pressed to quickly name the Prime Minister of Canada and President of Mexico, our immediate neighbors. Stephen Harper and Enrique Peña Nieto (I looked it up). We won't embarrass ourselves by extending that pop quiz to further off lands. While Ukraine is headline news today, I’d venture that many Americans have (beyond its bordering Russia) only a vague idea of where it lies on the world map. What we do know is that it’s far away and that the vast majority of us, whether we “approve” of the president’s foreign policy or not, really don’t want our military to step on its soil carrying that hammer.
Obama’s approach to the world is often characterized as uncertain or confusing — mixed messages. That may hold true in some instances, at least as others, including allies, see it relative to previous and far more aggressive administrations. Whether American interests have been well served or if previous policies have yielded success is a matter of debate. It’s hard to say that a “liberated” Iraq that now largely aligns itself with Iran and that is plagued by Sunni-Shiite civil war turned out so well. Bibi Netanyahu, a major cheerleader before and during George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, finds his country with another doorstep supporter of its “existential” adversary, something that certainly can’t be in Israel’s interest. What Obama and, make no mistake about it, we all face abroad are situations often situated on shifting sands, sometimes quicksand. What pertains in the evening is nullified by the next morning, or perhaps it never was really what it seemed. Today’s world is a moving target.
Consider the “Arab Spring”. In retrospect what we all naively considered a spring quickly turned into a bleak winter. Whatever spring existed was at best fleeting and most probably an illusion from the start. For sure these uprisings reflected frustration and unrest, especially within the educated mostly youthful class. But, beyond not representing more than a numerical minority in their countries, they may never have represented majority opinion. People living under autocracy, or for that matter under democracy, grow to accept and function within that system. When the system is threatened, their “way” is disrupted. Just look at Russia and Putin’s popularity or that of newly elected Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And his Egypt is a critical case in point. While heralded as the big breakthrough in the Arab Spring, it’s success, which turned out to be short-lived, hardened the response of the military autocrats. By the time the protests reached Syria, its ruler stood ready to forcibly suppress them, and brutally so. Be assured the same will be true if anyone decides to threaten the Saudi royals.
Obama is willing to admit to the world’s complexities and to restrain us from doing something that will turn out to be stupid. That infuriates the political opposition and equally important the so-called gurus of the foreign policy establishment. These are people who pride themselves on really knowing and understanding everything global. Among them are some print/digital columnists and broadcast luminaries but also a significant number of temporary “private citizens” who are between gigs at State, Defense or in somebody’s West Wing. These are hardly independent voices. That doesn’t mean they are uninformed or necessarily wrong in their assessments — they are often right — but many of them have deep-seated vested interests. Consider how many of these experts including (as Frank Rich points out in a current NY Magazine piece) some in the liberal establishment cheered on the Iraq war. In some cases, they criticize Obama because they feel compelled to defend their own — sometimes wrongheaded — recommended or administered policies. Some, for example Henry Kissinger the super guru or them all, excel at the art of hedging, denial or rewriting their own words just as the Soviets used to retell “history”. The most important thing is that they would have us believe that they are never “wrong”, perhaps just misunderstood.
We all know that Obama drew a horrendous economic hand in assuming the presidency. We have yet to fully overcome the Great Recession, even if numerically we have recovered the lost jobs — recovered in quantity but not quality, nor adjusted for population growth. If that was a bad hand, I’d describe what he inherited or what we face in the world as a proverbial “can of worms”. Except in our own minds, or that of many among the talking heads and gurus, we have scant control over those worms. Since what some, including Obama, see as our number one challenge coming from non-traditional foes rather than nation states, whatever sway we might have had in the past is virtually gone. We can, for example, impose sanctions on Iran and Russia when they engage in what we see as bad behavior, but can’t do the same with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The complexities that this produces can be seen in the fact that, while it would be perfectly okay to negotiate with say North Korea on a prisoner swap, the recent freeing of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl caused an uproar — much of it disingenuous.
Ironically most everyone agrees that the world and the nature of conflicts have changed post 9/11. There is even some consensus about the need to do things differently as we confront an era beyond traditional nation states. When someone, like the president, seeks a new path that’s a whole other matter entirely. Eisenhower characterized war as a “stupid folly”, this from the man who was Supreme Commander on D-Day whose seventieth anniversary we are commemorating this month. Sometime war is necessary, but it is nonetheless often futile. We humans can’t sustain continuous war and indeed only really prosper in times of peace and global interaction. We defeated the Nazi’s, an absolute necessity, militarily and morally. We may have done even more to defeat the country’s hateful mindset, by funding Germany’s rebuilding at the war’s end. The fight was necessary, the enemy evil and relentless, but long-term citizenry hearts and minds matter most. It was something not understood in the aftermath of World War I, with the most disastrous results.
Obama says there is no military solution in Syria and clearly believes there is none between Israel and Iran. He believes in negotiation and, yes, in robust caution. Is he right? We may have to await history for the answer. But I for one feel safer knowing that his hammer is not always at the ever ready.