In his State of the Union address delivered last week, President Obama talked at length about domestic issues--income inequality, health care, jobs and education. Foreign policy issues, including the continuing war in Afghanistan, the crisis in Syria, and talks over Iran’s nuclear program were given lip service at the end of his speech.
One of the reasons for this is that Americans have grown tired of a decade of endless war—and domestic policy matters much more to voters than foreign policy. But a careful read of Obama’s speech shows that the only firm promise he made was not to send troops into harm’s way.
“As commander in chief, I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office. But I will not send our troops into harm's way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts,” Obama said. “We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us -- large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.”
This line is indicative of a growing trend within the White House. Obama and his advisers spend a lot of time talking about what they’re not going to do. They rarely talk about what they are going to do, what they hope to achieve by doing it, and the reasons behind the action.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress, expressed this view in a Washington Post op-ed last week. Katulis argued that Obama’s failure to outline a more cohesive foreign policy “underscores a crisis of purpose about U.S. engagement in the world.”
The president needs to be more specific when addressing foreign policy, Katulis said. Even his promise not to send troops into harm’s way is vague -- what constitutes an event that is significant enough to put American in harm’s way?
For instance, Obama threatened military force against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons, but failed to act when evidence of their use emerged. At the same time, he ordered Navy SEALs into Somalia to fight al Shabaab after an attack on a mall in Kenya – an attack that killed no Americans.
“To advance his national security agenda in the next three years, Obama should offer a more cohesive strategic argument for global engagement, one that more clearly articulates the values informing his policies,” Katulis wrote. “It won’t be sufficient for the administration to state how the president intends to approach particular national security questions: He needs to articulate why they matter and what’s at stake.”
Katulis is traveling in Europe and was not able to comment. But evidence of U.S. disengagement, and our failure to offer specifics on how we intend to execute a foreign policy agenda, is everywhere.
For instance, the entire Middle East is in a period of upheaval that the Obama administration seems powerless to shape. The White House has been unable to stop bloodshed in Syria, and negotiations to end the conflict are floundering. Two Senators now claim that Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States failed in Syria, a characterization that the White House disputes.
At the same time, Iraq continues to descend into chaos as Washington offers only supplies and weapons while al Qaeda continues to make gains. Turmoil also continues in Egypt, as supporters of the government backed by Washington and deposed last year continue to struggle against the military.
In Afghanistan, the United States has yet to articulate a clear policy on what happens when the majority of troops leave this coming summer. Part of this is the fault of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who has refused to make an exit deal. But part of it also comes from internal fights within the administration about the future of the country.
To be sure, the United States is engaged in some foreign policy matters. Kerry has rebooted peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and diplomats are currently engaged in trade talks with Asian and European nations. But Robert Zarate, policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, said that these are exceptions to the rule.
“The bottom line is that President Obama is pursuing American minimalism,” he said. “He’s replacing policy with process.”
The two biggest examples of this are Iran and Syria, he said. The United States appears to be engaged because it’s participating in the talks. But that’s just process; the American end game, in each case, is unclear.
“The president, to this day…I don’t understand what he’s doing. The president didn’t want to get involved, period. The red line was just a figure of speech. I speculate that he thought that his bluff is enough,” Zarate said.
“I don’t think they think this stuff through a lot,” he added. “It’s photo-op foreign policy, and it’s the same situation with Iran. We’re just negotiating, not trying to force an outcome.”
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