May 28, 2014

Obama's Foreign Policy: Art of the Possible or Playing out the String?

Today, President Obama chose a West Point commencement address to revisit for the public his administration's foreign policy. The address will be picked apart by many, but it is unlikely to go down in history like Bush's 2002 commencement speech in terms of importance. That doesn't mean it's not worth considering. 

Obama tries so hard to appeal to both foreign policy liberals and realists, pleasing neither. Policy swings back and forth depending on domestic constraints. This plays out, for example, in initially backing off on Syria...wisely, I believe, yet doing so in a way that sent mixed messages to the international community and led to lagging problems with chemical weapons disposal there. Now, he's trying to at least appear more active in supporting rebels, when it's likely too late to do anything other than make the outcome worse.

Liberal hawks in the White House pushed for intervention in Libya, but prepared little capacity to follow through on the consequences of the intervention. Meanwhile, the GOP adds nothing productive whatsoever to the debates on policy there, or on Ukraine. It's not a golden age of foreign policy, but we're not blowing up governments and creating colossal failures for now, either. This sentiment was well articulated today by Daniel W. Drezner

It is, oddly enough, a more realist approach despite Obama’s attempt to distance himself from the title today. The response to the situation in Ukraine has been measured, but no real attempts have been made to explain to the public why this is the right approach (even though it is). 

Barring a new crisis, like a sudden escalation in the South China Sea, Obama's approach of just doing enough not to wreck everything should continue. Efforts to lead allies on continued, targeted sanctions of Russia, and actions bolstering NATO members' with respect to their energy concerns should be publicized more effectively, but reality is that there's no business going to war over Ukraine, or encouraging unnecessary tensions that will damage the global economic recovery. For an administration whose weakness tends to be in policy implementation, this should be reframed for allies and the American public in a way that is less "professor" Obama and more clear articulation of interests. 

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