Obama’s Punch and Judy Foreign Policy

In this handout provided by Malacanang Photo Bureau', US president Barack Obama signs the palace guestbook during his two-day State visit at the presidential palace on April 28, 2014 in Manila, Philippines. The Philippines trip is the last leg of his four-nation Southeast Asian visit highlighted by the signing of a ten-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the US and the Philippines. The defense agreement involves greater access of US troops in military bases in the Philippines as well as rotational deployment of US air and sea assets in the country. The United States continues to be a major trading partner of the Philippines, with total trade amounting to US$14.5 billion in 2013. Last year, U.S. was the second largest export destination of the Philippines after Japan, with exports reaching US$7.8 billion. 
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
April 29, 2014, 8 a.m.

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. 

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