Obama’s Incredibly Shrinking Foreign Policy Vision

President Obama’s trip to East Asia last month was all about shoring up America’s position in a region where a resurgent China is steadily engaged in revising the status quo.  But the most memorable part of the visit ended up being the diminished vision Mr. Obama projected of his own foreign policy.

Speaking at a press conference in Manila, Obama defended his conduct of foreign affairs in a way that was at once impassioned and uninspiring.  His approach, he argued, “may not always be sexy.  [It] may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows.  But it avoids errors.  You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”

The minimalist vision Mr. Obama articulated was incongruous coming amid a tour designed to impress upon U.S. allies that the strategic shift to Asia, his signature foreign policy initiative, was still very much on track.  All the more so at a gathering alongside Philippine President Benigno Aquino, whom he ostensibly wanted to reassure about U.S. steadfastness in the face of China’s  revanchist behavior.  Indeed, his words were a far cry from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strong rebuke of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea four years earlier.

The president’s statement immediately attracted criticism even from pundits normally inclined to be sympathetic.  Noting that “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody,” Maureen Dowd at the New York Times commented that the image Obama presented “doesn’t feel like leadership.  It doesn’t feel like in you’re in command of your world.”  The newspaper’s editorial board felt compelled to write a long piece that struck a similar theme.  It argued that the “sadly pinched view of the powers of his office” offered by Obama invites “criticism that he is not articulating a strong, overarching blueprint for the exercise of American power.”  It added that “You don’t inspire a team to go out and bloop a single over an infielder.”

Continuing with the baseball analogies, David Gergen at CNN opined that “It was odd enough given [Obama’s] huge power and influence, he thinks small ball.  But he also raised the question: Why so long between home runs?  When was the last one?  Three years ago with Osama bin Laden?”  And Fareed Zakaria at the Washington Post contended that Obama has a “strangely minimalist approach” to foreign policy and acts on the world stage “as if his heart is not in it, seemingly pulled along by events rather than shaping them.”

Curiously for a president who won re-election in convincing fashion, Mr. Obama during his second term has been gripped by a circumscribed sense of his own power, especially in the field of foreign affairs.  Just weeks after his second inauguration, he offered up Hamlet-like musings on his Syria policy, telling an interviewer: “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”  When he traveled to New York last September to address the UN General Assembly, he delivered a thoroughly uninspiring address that bored other delegates.  A Western prime minister was quoted in the press as saying “In the past we have seen some America overreach.  Now I think we are seeing America underreach.”

In a long New Yorker profile earlier this year, Obama biographer David Remnick observed that “there is in [Obama] a certain degree of reduced ambition.”  Remnick’s portrait was so jarring that a commentator noted in Slate that the Obama in the profile “wears the limitations of his office like a shawl,” while Ron Fournier at the National Journal asserted that “Obama seems to have surrendered to the limits of his most-powerful office.”

And just last week, while speaking in Los Angeles to a group focused on raising awareness of the Holocaust and other genocides, Mr. Obama confessed to feeling a sense of impotency in confronting the world’s worst humanitarian challenges.  This from a person who two years ago, in an address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocides is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.”

One wonders whether the president today would recognize the Obama then.  Apparently, Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the UN, does not.  Ms. Power made her name denouncing the Clinton administration’s failures to confront the horror of genocide.  In an address to the Holocaust Memorial Museum the other week, she offered what many interpret as a reproach to the Obama’s administration handling of the Syria crisis.

[UPDATE, May 14: The New York Times reports today that Power is not the only administration official who sees disquieting parallels between U.S. inaction in Rwanda two decades ago and the current situation in Syria.]

The president’s defenders are right that his caution and downsized agenda in foreign affairs fit well with the national mood.  A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News public opinion poll finds that nearly half  (47 percent) of Americans want the country to be less active on the global stage.  Yet the same poll shows that more than half (53 percent) disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign policy, with just 38 percent approving.  (The current Real Clear Politics average of national polling data on this issue shows the same breakdown.)

President Obama can claim to be delivering on what the national mood clamors for and yet the public remains unhappy with the result.  Foreign policy pundit Robert Kagan offers a bracing explanation for this paradox: “They may want what Obama has so far been giving them.  But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.”  He adds: “To follow a leader to triumph inspires loyalty, gratitude and affection.  Following a leader in retreat inspires no such emotions.”

The idealism that swept President Obama into the Oval Office, electrified crowds in Europe and garnered a Nobel peace prize in record time has now evaporated.  That would not be so bad had a far-sighted pragmatism emerged in its place.  Instead, a profound pessimism has seeped in.  Remnick, the president’s biographer, claims that this condition is because “the world seems to disappoint” Obama.  But the reverse appears to be truer.

A version of this essay appears on the Asia Sentinel web site.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.


3 thoughts on “Obama’s Incredibly Shrinking Foreign Policy Vision

  1. When President Bush was in office, I recall seeing a shoe being throw at him while at a press conference. It was utterly disrespectful no matter what side of the fence one viewed it from politically. Many people didn’t care for Bush, but the one thing you have to give him credit for is saying “this is what I’m going to do, and if you don’t like it, tough.” There was no debate. He just gathered allies to go along with him and did what he set out to do. Now, you have a leader who listens to what the people say. Yet, our society is made up of many competing interest and the realities on the ground do not allow for the wishes of some (and many times even most) to be reflected in the actual policy. There are many people making money (or at least attracting attention) by tearing down their own leader. They are arm chair quarterbacks who puppet what they think (or maybe even know) what some people like to hear. They really are not passionate about the issues, its just a way to get attention by an otherwise unimpressive lot. So, lets skip the nonsense and cut to the chase. WE DO NOT HAVE ALL THE CARDS. Even if we did, there are only so many plays one can make.

    We don’t know all the information and it would be absolutely stupid and absurd to assume we could correctly call foreign policy decisions and not have even 50% of the information the President has. It’s like shooting basketball with both eyes closed, missing, and then claiming you could have done better than Michael Jordan. He’s been in the game. You have never even played. Foolish. Why then should we care what a pundit says? He has no more information than “the blinded ball player.” It’s essentially the blind leading the blind. Given the same information and circumstance, you probably wouldn’t do anything different. Which is why if you study foreign policy, things don’t change drastically from one administration to the next. It’s a continuation. The only question is the extent and how.

    What is clear is that you don’t like the President. This is your choice. However, to try and make others believe somehow that a Sunday morning pundit and blogger have enough information to challenge calls made by experts “in the know” and a sitting President is ridiculous. Maybe debate a Secretary (stupid) or the Security Council (more stupid), but the President? Really? People seem to think that because you can hold a press conference somehow that qualifies you to boot your leadership and run the free world??? Everyone in this forum knows:

    1. There are matters of foreign policy that cannot be discussed in a public forum.
    Our enemies listen too.

    2. There are actions being taken that cannot be discussed. Our enemies would
    like to know too.

    3. ***** If you turn on your on President, why do I as another World Leader or country want to “partner” with you????? You are not loyal.

    As a leader, there are always those that will second guess your decisions. Likewise, there are times when there are legitimately equal ways to accomplish a goal. Deciding while charging halfway up the hill that you would rather follow someone else will never win a war. It will get you and your platoon killed. Bad mouthing the coach halfway through the game because you don’t like his calls will never help the team. It will make you lose. Likewise, your opponents laugh at you, take the ball, and score. Now tell me, why would I want to follow that guy? Good leaders don’t have to bad mouth the others, they just lead and do it well. If you haven’t done anything but trash others ideas then what does that make you? It makes you anything but a viable leadership candidate and anything but someone who should be emulated or listened to.

    Keep your head in the game, play hard with the calls made, and when it’s your turn lead, do it! But, please stop your moaning, complaining, and disrespect. It makes the whole country smell. Some “complain” that Soft Power isn’t working. Look at what you’re exporting about American loyalty!?! Who would want you for a partner??


  2. Pingback: Obama: Voting Present in Foreign Policy

  3. Pingback: U.S. intel failure in Iraq Obama's fault

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