Obama on the defensive
President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One.
I do not pay any attention when Fox News attacks President Barack Obama, especially over his foreign policy. When the neo-conservatives who brought us the Iraq War (John Bolton, the arrogant former United Nations ambassador comes to mind) offer their strident critiques of what the president is doing wrong, I assume Obama must have it right. When Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are on the Sunday talk shows decrying his “feckless” foreign policy, which they do almost weekly, I find that an appropriate time for a bathroom break.
All of the above are partisan rants by those, given their history, who have close to zero credibility with me.
But when criticism comes from those who are thoughtful, knowledgeable and often supportive of this president, I pay it heed. This past week there were some notable such cases.
Most, if not all, were evidently set off by an unfortunate choice of words in an Obama news conference in Manila during his recent Asian trip. The president was clearly defensive, frustrated and probably jet-lagged when he unwisely chose this baseball metaphor to describe presidential limitations in coping with such crises as Syria, Egypt and the Ukraine. “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”
That prompted this reaction from my good friend Richard Valeriani, a long time NBC diplomatic correspondent, in his blog for the Huffington Post: “Poor choice of metaphor, Mr. President, since it makes one think you also strike out. While much of the criticism may be unfair or unfocused, you’re elected to be the clean-up hitter, not to lead off. Nor do we expect you to wait for a walk. Swing for the fences, sir. You’ll hit more home runs that way.”
David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post, took a somewhat different tack. “In the realm of power politics, U.S. presidents get points not for being right but for being (or appearing) strong. Presidents either say they’re going to knock the ball out of the park, or they say nothing. The intangible factors of strength and credibility (so easy to mock) are, in fact, the glue of a rules-based international system.”
The New York Times editorial board, devoted its entire space last Sunday to “Obama and the World.” It too, worried about the weakness implied in the baseball comparison. “You don’t inspire a team to go out and bloop a single over an infielder. American presidents who stood as strong global leaders did so by setting high expectations in clear, if sometimes overly simplistic, ways. Mr. Obama’s comments last week fanned the anger of people on the left and the right who find him unfocused, weak and passive.”
If not just partisans, but even those who often support him think President Obama is projecting an image of weakness, then that is a serious problem. Although as the Times editorial went on to say, “It is paradoxical that, in key respects, Mr. Obama is precisely the kind of foreign policy president most Americans and their allies overseas wanted. He rejected the shoot-first tendencies of George W. Bush, who pretended to have all the answers, bungled two wars and asserted an in-your-face American exceptionalism that included bullying allies. We know where that got us.” We should. But it’s questionable how many Americans still remember.
Critics are quick to point out that Obama has now been president for five and a half years and he “owns” the problems he and this country face today. True. Yet the reality is that America’s economic problems were not of his making. And most foreign policy problems tie directly to the 2003 invasion of Iraq — a war of choice that was started under a false premise if not an outright lie. Iraq today is once again engaged in virtual civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Its wide open border is feeding both sides of the civil conflict in Syria. And its Shiite government is linked closely to Iran, one of America’s most troublesome adversaries. After having squandered more than a trillion dollars with the loss of 4,600 Americans killed and tens of thousands wounded, that’s what the U.S. accomplished in Iraq.
I would argue that the decision to attack Iraq and that war’s final outcome says much more about American impotence than anything Barack Obama has said, done or not done. And when Russian President Vladimir Putin calculates that he can get away with annexing Crimea from Ukraine (or more), you can be sure that he has also seen the polls showing that after the decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vast majority of Americans have no stomach for another one.
Still, like most people, if there is one area of Obama’s policies that I have found troubling it is in Syria. With a death toll now at 150,000 and the additional human tragedy of millions of refugees, it is enough to make any hard heart bleed. Surely the United States could have made a difference? Perhaps. But bear this in mind. This is not just a civil war in Syria. It is a proxy war involving numerous countries, between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, over who dominates the entire region. It has also become a war for al-Qaida in Iraq, which has used the wide-open Syrian/Iraq border to assert itself in Syria and expand its malevolent influence on a grander stage — so far with some success.
Also consider this. According to an official Iraqi publication in 2012, based on official reports, the commercial news media and nongovernmental organizations, there were over 162,000 civilian and combatants killed during the conflict that followed the American intervention of 2003. Other independent estimates range much higher. But that death toll alone is a compelling reason to keep the United States out of another unwinnable Middle East war. As it applies to Syria, doing so may still be the right decision.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.