Post #24 – Obama’s Foreign Policy: Still “Indispensable”

“The United States is, and remains, the one indispensable nation.” From that starting point, the President launched a defense of his foreign policy at West Point on May 28. US global leadership is not in doubt, he said: “The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.” The President offered his “bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will.” Anyone who might have thought the speech would represent a departure from the standard “we are number 1” rhetoric must be sorely disappointed.
Obama characterized his foreign-policy approach as neither interventionist nor isolationist. While he agreed that many external events seemingly outside the scope of US national security interests demand a US response nevertheless—such as the civil war in Syria or the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria—that response should not be a military one. Citing Dwight Eisenhower, Obama said: “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.” Obama then went on to make a distinction that many presidents have made, between crises that seriously threaten national security and therefore require direct, even unilateral, involvement, and other situations that might “stir our conscience” but should not stir the military into action.
These latter situations were really Obama’s main concern in the speech—specifically, terrorism and the necessity to mobilize allies and a variety of tools to bring terrorists to heel. He asked Congress to authorize $5 billion for a new “counterterrorism partnerships fund” which “will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” He mentioned Yemen, Somalia, and Mali as countries where those partnerships could be effective. Contrary to his theme of avoiding US military involvement in places of remote interest, Obama cited drone strikes as one acceptable tool of counterterrorism when there is “actionable intelligence” and “near certainty of no civilian casualties.” Here, Obama acknowledged an ongoing problem: being square with the American people about such operations. “I also believe we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out. We have to be able to explain them publicly, whether it is drone strikes or training partners.” Thus far, his administration has been anything but transparent about the use of drones and very careless about avoiding civilian casualties.
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” Obama said. “But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Indeed—and Obama rightly mentioned resistance to a new global climate change treaty, support of Egypt’s dictators, and failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (as I noted in my post #23 on the South China Sea dispute) as examples of US exemptionalism. But he omitted plenty of other examples, such as NSA eavesdropping on international leaders, drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, and failure to sign and ratify the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court.
In the end, although Obama’s speech came under fire, predictably, from both interventionists and isolationists, it was actually a restatement of his longstanding view that once out of Afghanistan (now, by end of 2016, however) and Iraq, the US would be much less willing to put soldiers in harm’s way. Instead, as happened with Eisenhower after the Korean War and Nixon after Vietnam, Obama is seeking ways to stay globally involved at less direct cost. Trouble is, a foreign policy still wedded to American exceptionalism cannot avoid the slippery slope of involvement and consequent blowback. Eisenhower experienced that with CIA-backed interventions in Iran, Guatemala, and Lebanon; and Nixon could not avoid expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia, with its consequent genocide under the Khmer Rouge. Obama has already set his own dangerous path by establishing a large military and intelligence footprint in Africa, as my next post will show.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for the detail and analysis – far more than I got from any news source – including OPB.

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