Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama’s Foreign Policy Fecklessness

Published in The Week on November 30, 2015


Conservative hawks have long blasted the Obama administration for its accommodating posture toward America’s adversaries, which they argue has made Obama weak, both in perception and in reality, and that this weakness has emboldened America’s adversaries, to the detriment of America’s interests and to global stability.

It’s easy enough to caricature this view, and many voices on the right have provided fodder for the caricature. The whole critique seems to turn on the idea that all of international relations is about perception, and the only thing that matters is projecting and embodying toughness. The only way America can play its role on the world stage, in this view, is through confrontation and fear. I’m a conservative hawk myself, and yet I have often been highly skeptical of this view, because the world is a lot more complex than that, and different situations call for different responses. And, obviously, we shouldn’t forget the Bush administration’s example of hawkishness gone disastrously wrong.

Nevertheless, at some point, enough is enough. You shouldn’t turn a valid insight into an all-encompassing worldview, but it remains a valid insight nonetheless. In international relations, perceptions matter. States may be the “coldest of cold monsters,” but they are headed by human beings who may not always be rational self-interest maximizers.

The international order is undergirded by American security alliances that rely, essentially, on perception. Nobody wants the U.S. to go to war with China over Taiwan. But the whole point of America’s alliance with Taiwan is precisely that it doesn’t have to go to war, because the threat of war with America is enough to deter China from invading Taiwan. Of course, that stability depends on whether China believes that, in fact, America would follow through on its promise. Thus it is with China, thus it is with North Korea, thus it is with NATO, thus it is with the U.S. Navy presence that protect the world’s shipping lanes on which the global economy depends.

Perceptions matter, and it has become clearly undeniable that in many places — Moscow, Damascus, Tehran, Jerusalem, Beijing — the president of the United States is perceived as weak, and that people in these places have behaved accordingly. Indeed, the perception has become so entrenched, and the president’s reluctance to do anything to disavow it so apparent, that it has become a real problem for global security.

Take the case of my own country, France, which was savagely attacked on Nov. 13 by the Islamic State in France’s worst domestic calamity since World War II. Last week, the president of France was in the United States asking for help from its NATO ally in defeating ISIS. In response, Obama gave us a lot of very nice phrases, and almost nothing else.

This alone would be bad enough, but in a context in which so many members of NATO, especially in Eastern Europe, are in a state of virtual panic over the credibility of American security guarantees, it is unforgivably feckless. Most of Vladimir Putin’s moves over the past years have had the goal of undermining the credibility of NATO, perhaps to the breaking point, and are clearly motivated in significant part by Putin’s belief that Obama is weak and can be pushed around. Hence the gambits in Ukraine and in Syria, for which Putin has paid little cost. And now Turkey, probably for its own reasons, has played into Putin’s hands by responding to his ceaseless air provocations by shooting down a Russian plane. Obviously an armed confrontation between a NATO country and a nuclear-armed power calls for a deft hand, and Turkey’s motives in the incident were probably not quite clean. But given the overall context, preserving NATO deserves more American reaction than coughing and looking at one’s shoes, which is essentially what America has done thus far.

The same scenario is playing out in the Pacific Rim, despite Obama’s much vaunted “turn to the Pacific,” where the Obama administration has only very leisurely responded to China’s campaign of annexation of the South China Sea, that has all neighboring countries not called China deeply concerned.

And the less said about the Iran deal, the better. Loosening sanctions on Iran will only bring more conflagration to the Middle East as the ascendant Shia power looks to assert itself and the rich Sunni kingdoms react in panic.

Enough is enough. The Bush administration had a bad strategy. The Obama Administration has had no strategy. That’s better than a bad strategy, but only to a point, and this point has been reached. Obama only has a few months left in this job, and it’s time he started to take an interest in it. We can’t see his back soon enough, but the world can’t wait that long.

It’s a platitude, but sometimes platitudes, like stopped clocks, are correct. Time to lead, Mr President.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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