Small World: Obama’s foreign policy — weak or wise?

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

President Obama’s “feckless” foreign policy invited the crisis in Ukraine, Senator McCain told a pro-Israel group last week. The president, he continued, has repeatedly failed to demonstrate American strength in the face of adversaries.

McCain was only the latest Republican to criticize the administration's handling of the crisis. Other GOP critics have piled on. A few days earlier, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., broadcast, “We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.” The perception of weakness began, he added, when Obama failed to retaliate for the murder of our ambassador in Benghazi.

Two questions: (1.) Do these charges have merit? And, (2.) whether true or not, do they matter?

(1.) No one in Washington or friendly capitals disputes the stark fact that American military prowess out-guns any conceivable opponent or group of enemies. (Let’s leave aside non-state guerrilla gangs.) It would be a fool-hearty opponent who would take a chance on that truth. The persisting question, however, is whether Obama has the guts to use the strength available to him. While he backed out of a losing venture in Iraq and seems poised to end another in Afghanistan, he projected strength in nailing Osama bin Laden and in stepping up the use of drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen.

The biggest pain irritating his hawkish critics is the red line he drew in Syria against the use of poison gas and then stepped around it when the Russians persuaded Damascus to give up all its chemical weapons. McCain & Co. wanted to see U.S. bombs and missiles flying. That would have meant many more thousands of deaths, but, hey, they’d mostly be Syrians and don’t count. For Obama, after internal debate, diplomacy overrode force and he held back the Pentagon.

Similarly, McCain and pro-Israel neocons have pushed for stepped up pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program. Obama has blocked them. He recognizes his limits and has pushed ahead with the (so far) promising negotiations to assure that Tehran won’t get a weapon.

So my answer is that the criticism doesn’t stand up, although I would have preferred to have seen the president more careful in his warnings and threats as a crisis develops. It’s not smart to be provocative when dealing with a tough and determined antagonist.

(2.) That leads to the second question’s answer: Yes, domestic attacks on foreign policy do matter because they require that the administration’s every action and statement be made with two opponents in mind — the foreign enemy and the domestic competitors (plus our nervous friends whose fate is intertwined with ours). When Russia moved on Crimea, Obama warned there would be “costs.” That kind of tough talk is as much intended to deflate Republicans as it is to warn Putin to take the United States seriously. Whatever Obama’s intention, Republicans continued chanting “weakling” at him. Diplomatically, it would have been more adroit to leave Putin with a face-saving exit from his brash move.

It would have been better had Obama talked more like Germany’s Merkel who said very little and was mum on sanctions and other forms of pressure. Germany, after all, is a half-day’s drive from Ukraine and a big investment and trading partner with Russia, which delivers a third of Germany’s natural gas requirements. No major European government (yet) is talking about moving NATO troops to the Russian border or sailing a battle flotilla into the Black Sea. Those would be empty gestures, which would not in today’s world be backed up with action. They would only embarrass and delay a resolution to the dispute which will require both sides to back down a step or two — and which in any scenario will lead Beltway hawks to scream “appeasement,” “weakness” and similar Sunday talk-show slogans.

Footnote: Demons make difficult negotiating partners. When American politicians (like Hillary) call Putin a “Hitler” or a “Stalin” whose every move is scorned, he becomes a leader the administration hesitates to deal with. We don’t have to love or admire Putin, but it is essential to understand him and his country if we want to fashion an accommodation.

It used to be — think back to Truman and Eisenhower — that politics stopped at the waterline. While the oceans may be expanding from global warming, the political waterline seems farther and farther away from our customary shores.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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