Foreign Policy Won’t Leave Obama Alone

The president may have been elected to “nation-build” at home, but his focus keeps getting pulled abroad.

President Barack Obama waves as he walks up the stairs of Air Force One before leaving Amsterdam Airport Schiphol March 25, 2014 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
March 27, 2014, 5 p.m.

“Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.” Mi­chael Cor­le­one

Sit­ting in his of­fice in Bav­aria, where he runs his con­sultancy com­pany, John C. Huls­man reached back to that quint­es­sen­tially Amer­ic­an film The God­fath­er, Part III to try to ex­plain Pres­id­ent Obama and for­eign policy. “Mi­chael Cor­le­one was try­ing to go le­git­im­ate and com­plained that the life kept draw­ing him back in,” Huls­man told Na­tion­al Journ­al this week. “That’s what for­eign policy has been for Obama. He can’t get away from it; he can’t es­cape it.”

The crisis in Ukraine is just the latest re­mind­er that, as many times as Obama pledges to “spend every minute of every day” work­ing on cre­at­ing jobs, no pres­id­ent can avoid spend­ing a big chunk of time con­duct­ing for­eign policy. For a pres­id­ent elec­ted twice on a plat­form to “na­tion-build” at home and fo­cus on un­em­ploy­ment, this is clearly a source of great frus­tra­tion.

It is one reas­on the stakes were so high for Obama’s trip this week to the Neth­er­lands, Bel­gi­um, Italy, and Saudi Ar­a­bia. More than on any re­cent pres­id­en­tial ex­cur­sion, he has en­countered lead­ers who want re­as­sur­ance — re­as­sur­ance that he cares about Europe, that NATO will hold to­geth­er, that Wash­ing­ton will find the right bal­ance of re­solve and cau­tion both in Europe and the Middle East. The need for that re­as­sur­ance stems in part from the fact that the oth­er lead­ers are well aware that this Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent would prefer to spend his time on do­mest­ic is­sues.

But that’s not pos­sible when Rus­si­an troops are seiz­ing Crimea and Bashar al-As­sad is gain­ing an up­per hand over the rebels in Syr­ia. “We have to walk and chew gum now in a very big way,” says Heath­er A. Con­ley, who was a deputy as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State for European and Euras­i­an af­fairs dur­ing George W. Bush’s first term and now is dir­ect­or of the Europe Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies. “The for­eign policy crises that are emer­ging here de­mand the pres­id­ent’s full at­ten­tion. For­eign policy can no longer be a dis­trac­tion. It now has to be a fo­cus for this pres­id­ent.”

Per­haps nev­er be­fore has a pres­id­ent in his sixth year faced so many calls to ex­plain his for­eign policy. It is why so much at­ten­tion was paid to Obama’s ad­dress Wed­nes­day at the Pal­ais des Beaux-Arts in Brus­sels. Ana­lysts on both sides of the At­lantic were watch­ing for signs of where the pres­id­ent’s policy will go next now that Rus­sia has seized Crimea. “What is needed is line-draw­ing in an old-fash­ioned, Harry Tru­man-like way, where we ac­know­ledge what we can do, and what we can’t do, and what we’re will­ing to do, and — crit­ic­ally — why,” Huls­man says.

Adds Con­ley: “What are our goals?”

For the most part, the speech fell short of provid­ing an­swers. The pres­id­ent offered re­as­sur­ance that he will not over­re­act to Ukraine, ac­know­ledging in what he called “a cold­hearted cal­cu­lus” that U.S. na­tion­al in­terests are not at risk there. The closest Obama came to draw­ing a line was his pledge to “nev­er waver” in de­fend­ing the 27 oth­er NATO mem­bers. Spe­cific­ally, he re­af­firmed the Amer­ic­an com­mit­ment to the de­fense of Po­land and the three Balt­ic coun­tries of Es­to­nia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

But voters — and oth­er lead­ers — could not be blamed if they were to want a more ro­bust ex­plan­a­tion of Obama’s for­eign policy. This does not mean Obama doesn’t have a co­her­ent policy so much as it sug­gests that he has fallen short in ar­tic­u­lat­ing it. Huls­man, who was a re­spec­ted ana­lyst at the Her­it­age Found­a­tion be­fore mov­ing to Ger­many and start­ing Huls­man En­ter­prises, be­lieves Obama knows what he wants to ac­com­plish but finds it too polit­ic­ally risky to be can­did about it. “He has done an aw­ful lot of things right,” says Huls­man, a Re­pub­lic­an. He cred­its the pres­id­ent with “wind­ing down George W. Bush’s for­eign policy ex­cesses, get­ting out of Ir­aq and out of Afgh­anistan, and not do­ing any­thing stu­pid” to get in­to fur­ther wars. “That is de facto real­ism. It is closet real­ism. The prob­lem is, it is closeted. He is not telling any­body what he is do­ing.”

Huls­man says Obama keeps it “closeted” be­cause he is at odds with the for­eign policy es­tab­lish­ments of both parties. Re­pub­lic­ans re­main in the con­trol of neo­con­ser­vat­ives al­ways itch­ing to pro­ject Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary power. And Demo­crats — in­clud­ing Obama’s top for­eign policy ad­visers — tend to be Wilso­ni­ans eager to use the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary for com­pas­sion­ate ends. Obama’s di­lemma, brought home again this week, is that he rests in neither camp. He is much more averse to the use of the mil­it­ary than either the neo­cons or the Wilso­ni­ans. But he avoids fights in­side his own party by of­ten us­ing the rhet­or­ic of the Demo­crat­ic for­eign policy es­tab­lish­ment. Des­pite this, his policies tend to be more those of a real­ist than an act­iv­ist.

Ukraine may force the pres­id­ent to be more open about where he stands. Already, it has forced him to pay great­er at­ten­tion to Europe than he did in his first term, when the em­phas­is was on his “pivot” to Asia. This trip it­self dealt with one of the biggest griev­ances voiced by Europeans — his pre­vi­ous un­will­ing­ness to go to Brus­sels, con­sidered the “cap­it­al” of Europe. No pres­id­ent since John Kennedy has waited so long to go there, just as no re­cent pres­id­ent has traveled less across Europe. Bill Clin­ton vis­ited as many coun­tries on the Con­tin­ent — 13 — in 1994 as Obama has vis­ited in six years. And Obama has made no secret of how much he dis­likes at­tend­ing sum­mits. But now, thanks to Ukraine and an em­boldened Vladi­mir Putin, Obama has been drawn to the sum­mit table in Brus­sels. He may have thought he was out. But, like Mi­chael Cor­le­one, he was pulled back in.

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