WASHINGTON, September 1, 2014 — Criticism of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy record has mounted with the tensions in Ukraine and the Middle East. How much of this criticism is actually due?
President Obama and his team have made mistakes, including critical ones like their mishandling of the Benghazi embassy attack and their hollow threats at Syria over the use of chemical weapons. Obama’s response to the Islamic State threat and the Ukrainian crisis are now drawing fire from both sides of the aisle.
On the other hand, the cautious approach of the Obama Administration probably best fits the current mood of the International Community. This writer has preached a similar approach for dealing with situations like the Arab Spring revolutions. Unfortunately, the challenges of the world are growing in number and scope while emerging crises require far more novel solutions than the president alone can supply.
We no longer face a clear threat like the Soviet Union, nor does our foreign policy have a clear goal, e.g., the building of an International Community that fosters stability and development across the globe. That makes it difficult for the U.S. to pursue a clear, coherent foreign policy.
In fact, Americans live in a world where global partners must constantly rebalance their interests, something the United States has often neglected to do over the past few decades. We live in a world that is threatened by global instability, globalized terrorism, crime, rogue states, and increasingly discontented world powers.
The international community has transformed from a monopolar diplomatic mission dominated by the interests of one true superpower — the U.S. — to a multipolar order of democratizing nation-states increasingly seeking to assert their own interests as part of a broader resovereignization process.
To make matters worse, the U.S. and the rest of the world are coming out of the world’s worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. Globalization is shifting the balance of economic power and public debt is at historic levels.
The U.S. military, the keystone of American power, was severely depleted by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Although Americans are traditionally left feeling displeased and irritated when they do not have the power to exert their will or help those in need, we must pick our battles wisely while the U.S. recoups its strength and learns the dynamics of this new world order.
In other words, the U.S. has lost its ability to demand what it wants and expect the world to deliver, so it must act smarter in order to achieve its long-term and broader interests.
The reason the U.S. has been more willing to deal with Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis through economic sanctions than it has Syria’s behavior, for example, is that Russia represents a far greater threat to America’s broader interests. The peace and stability cultivated by the international community allow America to prosper economically while preventing major conflicts, reducing the risk of America being pulled into a major conflict or watching the world tear itself apart.
This is why the Obama Administration is reluctant to challenge Russia with threats of force. But because the international community is built on the shared benefits of peace and stability, the powerful must do their best to protect weak countries. Otherwise, the weak countries will undermine, instead of strengthen, the international community.
In Libya, intervention was fairly easy; failure to act there in Western interests would have undermined the cohesion and legitimacy of the international community. Because intervention in Syria would be far more challenging, the natural tendency of nations to avoid the conflicts of others continues to overwhelm the clear need to intervene, thus the failure to act is more understandable and do less damage to the legitimacy of the international community.
Similarly, rogue states like North Korea and Iran have undermined the legitimacy of the international community for years, yet these rogue states have only come close to tipping the balance in favor of military intervention. Because Russia is a major world power, the international community cannot tolerate the blunt transgressions of Russia against Ukraine. The U.S. has to engage the situation somehow.
Consequently, the Obama approach to foreign policy is both slow and weakly effective, yet it is a prudent path in an era of change when none of the options are good and the world does not truly know what will work.
With regard to the Islamic State, the number of threats from extremist groups, state actors, and other entities throughout the Middle East and world are so numerous that devoting military resources to one potential threat, no matter how alarming, would have undermined America’s ability to react to other potential threats.
Hind-sight is 20/20, and the U.S. cannot address every single rising threat to our national security interests. Because security threats in foreign lands cannot be solely addressed by the U.S., America needs local security forces and leaders to solve the issues that promote these threats. Looking back at our War in Iraq, we should remember that the collapse of Iraq was predicted based on the failure of the Bush Administration to address major sectarian grievances and sharp political division, while the U.S. Congress and the majority of Americans did not want to intervene in Syria, which served as incubator for the Islamic State.