Obama: Time for Others to Do the Heavy Lifting

His foreign policy reboot is dependent on America’s ability to convince allies and adversaries to take on a greater role in global problem solving.

US President Barack Obama arrives at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York to deliver the commencement address to the 2014 graduating class May 28, 2014.
National Journal
James Oliphant
May 28, 2014, 8:20 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s for­eign policy has been sav­aged for lack­ing con­sist­ency and show­ing few if any real res­ults, the kind that can be cred­ited with either im­prov­ing U.S. se­cur­ity or con­trib­ut­ing to sta­bil­ity around the world. The re­boot he out­lined Wed­nes­day prob­ably won’t either.

Six years in­to his ad­min­is­tra­tion, one that has seen Syr­ia’s Bashar al-As­sad use chem­ic­al weapons on ci­vil­ians and Rus­sia’s Vladi­mir Putin steal land from Ukraine, Obama is try­ing to quiet his crit­ics and con­vince a weary pub­lic that there is a strategy driv­ing his ap­proach. And that strategy can be called mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism.

“We should not go it alone,” Obama said in a gradu­ation speech at the U.S. Mil­it­ary Academy at West Point. “Col­lect­ive ac­tion, in these cir­cum­stances, is more likely to suc­ceed, more likely to be sus­tained, and less likely to lead to costly mis­takes.”

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The biggest prob­lem for the pres­id­ent is that this doc­trine, such as it is, may do noth­ing to either win over the doubters or solve glob­al prob­lems. Why? Be­cause it is de­pend­ent on Amer­ica’s abil­ity to con­vince al­lies and ad­versar­ies alike to take on a great­er role in find­ing com­mon solu­tions, something at which the U.S. gov­ern­ment does not ex­cel.

Ad­mit­tedly, the chal­lenges fa­cing this White House would be daunt­ing for any ad­min­is­tra­tion: Re­pel Putin in Ukraine and East­ern Europe; con­tain China’s ag­gres­sion in the Pa­cific Rim; sta­bil­ize shaky Middle East­ern re­gimes, such as Egypt, that can help part­ner on coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts; find a solu­tion to end the blood­shed in Syr­ia. All while mak­ing sure Item 1 on the ac­tion list re­mains check­ing the spread of Qaida off­shoots.

“Flex­ible mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism” doesn’t ex­actly sound like a win­ning bump­er stick­er.

Yet it is hard not to think about Putin and As­sad when con­sid­er­ing the Wed­nes­day speech. In­deed, Obama may nev­er re­cov­er from the one-two punch of As­sad cross­ing the pres­id­ent’s “red line” and Putin’s in­cur­sion in­to Crimea. The mul­ti­lat­er­al ap­proach the pres­id­ent said he fa­vors has so far shown paltry res­ults in both in­stances. “They show how hard it can be for world opin­ion to move at the same speed as the U.S.,” said Blaise Mis­ztal, dir­ect­or of the For­eign Policy Pro­ject at the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton. At the same time, he said, “there doesn’t seem to be a will­ing­ness to make mus­cu­lar as­ser­tions of Amer­ic­an power after the fact.”

And that’s what frus­trates poli­cy­makers in­side the se­cur­ity and dip­lo­mat­ic com­munity, in the United States and bey­ond. The daunt­ing chal­lenges that face the United States and its al­lies can of­ten serve as ex­cuses for an overly lim­ited, nu­anced, and, frankly, con­fus­ing re­sponse.

That may help ex­plain why Obama has seen pub­lic ap­prov­al of his ac­tions on for­eign policy drop so pre­cip­it­ously since his 2012 reelec­tion even though the Amer­ic­an pub­lic is be­com­ing de­cidedly anti-in­ter­ven­tion­ist. “If you look around the world stage, the U.S. does look in­ef­fec­tu­al right now,” said Mis­ztal.

Still, this mul­ti­lat­er­al ap­proach will be in­creas­ingly re­lied on not just to grapple with tra­di­tion­al threats but to counter ter­ror­ism as well, Obama has im­plied. “We need part­ners,” he said. As ex­amples, he cited train­ing se­cur­ity forces in Afgh­anistan and Ye­men, work­ing with oth­er gov­ern­ments in Somalia and Mali, work­ing with Europe in Libya, and aid­ing the re­gimes in Jordan, Le­ban­on, Tur­key, and Ir­aq to help vi­ol­ence in Syr­ia from spread­ing out­ward.

Even as it might sound like ton­ic to a coun­try ex­it­ing two dis­astrous wars, Obama’s min­im­al­ist turn may be viewed by some crit­ics as a means by which to evade ac­count­ab­il­ity should no pro­gress be made in Ukraine, or Ir­an, or Syr­ia. And it should con­tin­ue to hand those who fa­vor a more ag­gress­ive stance fod­der for cri­ti­ciz­ing this ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing po­ten­tially, Hil­lary Clin­ton, should she run for pres­id­ent.

As the pres­id­ent said him­self on Wed­nes­day, “Tough talk draws head­lines, but war rarely con­forms to slo­gans.”

That may be true, but “flex­ible mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism” doesn’t ex­actly sound like a win­ning bump­er stick­er, either.

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