The ongoing search for Obama’s foreign policy

The ongoing search for Obama’s foreign policy

Robert Smith, Opinion Editor

In July of 2011, The Atlantic published “The Best and Worst Foreign Policy Presidents of the Last Century.” In the top were presidents who took on global conflicts with level headedness and a firm direction, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush.

The poorer foreign policies noted included the shaky “support human rights but, no, wait, U.S. interest’s come first” policy of President Carter (which included the chiding of ally South Korea while backing off criticism of the Soviet Union to keep weapons negotiations going).

And The Atlantic couldn’t leave out the “you don’t need to know what’s going on in Vietnam” policy of Lyndon B. Johnson (who in 1964, claimed that he would not send US soldiers to fight an Asian soldier’s war, and had deployed four marine battalions on offensive operations by spring 1965).

Absent from the list was our current Commander in Chief, Barack Obama. One could say it’s because his foreign policy is neither good nor bad. I propose another reason: he doesn’t have one.

Obama’s flip-flopping on foreign issues predates his presidency. In October 2002, as a senator, Obama made a speech in Chicago, calling the conflict in Iraq a “dumb” war.”

In 2004, he told Boston reporters that the U.S. had an “absolute obligation” to remain in Iraq long enough to make it a success.

During his campaign in 2008, he promised he would have all U.S. troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office. In the first year of his presidency, he extended that deadline by three months to August of 2010.

In October of 2011, he set a final deadline of December 31, a statement he actually backed up.

So was that bobble just a newly elected president’s mouth writing checks he couldn’t cash? I don’t think so, as Afghanistan paints a similar picture.

In 2009, Obama ordered a 30,000 troop surge into Afghanistan…for 18 months. Why? Because military leaders told him they needed more troops, and an 18-month deployment would let him announce a troop draw down right in time for the 2012 elections.

The Arab Spring showed an even greater lack of direction. Obama ordered an air campaign to support Libyan militias during the Libyan civil war. Gene Healy of Reason magazine said this was “an illegal war by Obama’s own terms,” referencing a statement Obama made in 2007: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual imminent threat to the nation.”

Flash forward to Syria in 2012. With the Syrian civil war in full swing, Obama makes a statement on August 20 saying “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Well, on August 21, a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus killed over 1,400 civilians according to U.S. intelligence officials. So what did the President do? He actually tried to stick to his word…kind of.

In September 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed congress, seeking approval for a military strike against Syria. However, he made it clear in his address that regarding the reason for seeking approval, “this is not President Obama’s red line,” and “this debate is about the world’s red line.”

The President himself ending up backtracking on his own words at a press conference in Stockholm, saying “I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line.”

That same month, when asked what Syrian president Assad could do to avoid a U.S. attack, Secretary Kerry said at a news conference in London, “He could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay. But he isn’t about to do so.”

Immediately after, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made an offer to Syria to turn over control of its chemical weapons to an international community for destruction and join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Again that same day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem said Syria “welcomes Russia’s initiative.” The day of back-and-forths ended with President Obama saying a disarmament plan “could potentially be a significant breakthrough.”

So what’s the deal with Obama’s foreign policies? From what I can tell, he’s got a different voice in each ear. His strategists are telling him one thing while his constituents are saying the opposite, so he’s trying to appease both.

I’ll admit, I understand Obama’s hesitation on a strike in Syria after Russia’s offer and the lack of American support. I assume any president would prefer a diplomatic solution in face of a militaristic one. One could also argue the “red line” statement was a tactic to expedite a U.N. investigation into the chemical attack.

But drawing “red lines,” and backing down when someone crosses one isn’t a basis for a foreign policy. My advice to the president: let the American people and the world know that you have a plan, what it is, and what line specifically has to be crossed before you implement it, and if it is, follow through.