MANILA — For President Obama, caution in the defense of liberty is no vice, and militarism in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
Obama didn't come to Asia to paraphrase Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention. But he did after growing frustrated with recent editorial criticism portraying his foreign policy as weak and naive.
It started in Seoul, where Obama faced a second day of questions from reporters in Japan and South Korea about his commitment to defend these allies in the face of Chinese and North Korean military muscle-flexing.
"We seem to have gotten in the habit of thinking that when there are hard foreign policy problems that there may actually be a definitive answer; typically, those who offer that definitive answer come up with the use of force as the definitive answer," Obama said. "You would think, given that we've just gone through a decade of war, that that assumption would be subject to some questioning."
Obama then said as a student of history and as commander in chief he understood the limits of military power. "Very rarely have I seen the exercise of military power providing a definitive answer."
If military power isn't the answer, what is? Risk avoidance.
"If there are occasions where targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them," Obama said here during a press conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino. "We don't do them because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think it would look strong. That's not how we make foreign policy. It may not always be sexy. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run."
That's Punch and Judy foreign policy, the elevation of small, incremental success over swinging for the fences, embracing grand visions or — most important — making big mistakes. In Syria, Ukraine, and here in Asia, Obama's first priority is to avoid a foreign policy face-plant.
- He won't fight a war to topple Bashar al-Assad.
- He won't send troops to defend a transitional government in Kiev only mildly less disorganized and corrupt than its predecessor.
- He has no stomach (neither does South Korea, by the way) for a conventional war with North Korea and has been startled by the unpredictable thuggery of young dictator Kim Jong-un, making him all the more dependent on the good offices of Beijing.
- For this reason, Obama doesn't want to overpromise in Japan's territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands or the dispute with China over the Second Thomas Shoal and the marooned U.S. rust bucket Sierra Madre.
All of this makes sense if risk avoidance is your top priority. I would argue this is among the most important legacies of Benghazi, a lethal foreign policy disaster that grew out of Obama's decision, one that evolved slowly, to back what he thought would be low-risk, multinational military action in Libya. Toppling Muammar el-Qaddafi and preventing a feared civilian slaughter proved to be just that. But the aftermath blew up in Obama's face when presumably allied local militia became terrorist collaborators and U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were murdered.
Ever since, the inherent risks of dealing with unknown actors — rebels in Syria or the hollowed-out military in Ukraine — have led Obama to prioritize caution over armed confrontation. The military stakes with China are even bigger; hence, Obama's studious avoidance here of any language that could be regarded as critical or confrontational in relation to the long-simmering but suddenly hot island disputes with Japan and the Philippines.
"Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China," Obama said. "Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of maritime disputes. And we don't even take a specific position on the disputes between nations."
As if to put the hands-off policy on a billboard visible from Manila to Beijing, Obama added this: "I suspect that there are some islands and rocks in and around Canada and the United States where there are probably still some arguments dating back to the 1800s." Obama isn't going to send the Seventh Fleet to defend "some islands and rocks" in the South China or East Philippine Sea.
Obama, in other words, knows precisely what he doesn't want to do. No errors. No big, embarrassing strikeouts. Singles and doubles. In baseball, that's called a Punch and Judy, station-to-station offense. Move the runners along gradually; keep momentum going.
But if your global rivals know you best by your self-imposed limits, how capably can you project power? Is it canny to concede more than necessary? This is the central question for Obama's foreign policy. He argued forcefully here that the greater danger is picking reckless fights or pretending a war-exhausted American public will support war in Syria, Ukraine, or anywhere in Asia.
The problem for Obama is the perception here and elsewhere that the most forceful thing he's done on this trip or since Benghazi has been to explain what he can't do — not what he can.
The author is National Journal correspondent-at-large and chief White House correspondent for CBS News. He is also a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.