Trudy Rubin: Obama should do more abroad

05/09/2014 12:00 AM

05/08/2014 5:25 PM

As he was traveling in Asia late last month, President Obama let loose with a broadside against critics who say his foreign policy is too weak.

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war…?” he demanded at a news conference in Manila. “Many who were proponents of … a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over.” His job as commander in chief, he added, is “to deploy military force (only) as a last resort.”

There in a nutshell seems to be the core tenet of the Obama Doctrine: Whether the problem is Syria, Ukraine, Africa or Asia, avoid the mistakes George W. Bush made by sending troops to Baghdad. But the doctrine is based on a false premise.

A more robust U.S. foreign policy needn’t repeat the military adventures so blindly pursued by the previous occupant of the White House. Obama could have sent convincing signals to Russia, China, Iran, Syria and others – without American boots on the ground.

Now it’s understandable that any president elected in 2008 would (or should) be chastened by the huge mess his predecessor made in Iraq. That legacy, plus the long war in Afghanistan, has soured most Americans on further foreign adventures, and any president must consider public opinion.

So it’s understandable that Obama wants to focus more on diplomacy and trade, and less on countries engaged in messy conflicts. It’s also understandable that he hoped to spend more time on domestic issues, at a time when economic disparities were growing.

Unfortunately, the vagaries of history don’t always deliver what a president hopes for. Iraq can’t be the constant excuse for doing too little, too late on foreign-policy issues that affect core U.S. interests. Yet the “no more Iraqs” mantra constantly colors the president’s response on foreign policy from Syria to Ukraine.

In Manila, he scoffed at critics who said he should be assisting the Syrian opposition. “Well, we’re assisting the opposition,” he said. Yet, in 2012, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and CIA Director David Petraeus all proposed arming and organizing vetted, moderate Syrian opposition commanders, Obama nixed it.

That was the moment when such aid might have convinced the Syrian regime and its backers in Moscow that they had to negotiate a deal. Instead, the opposition was sent only nonlethal aid, heavy on MREs – the meals ready to eat that are fed to U.S. troops.

Obama still doesn’t seem to understand the message of weakness this sent to Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin. And, in Manila, he was still bragging about the deal he struck with Moscow on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, after reneging on a public pledge to strike Assad’s military facilities if the Syrian leader ever used poison gas.

Never mind that 150,000 Syrians have died from conventional weapons, while Assad still retains some chemical weapons and allegedly used chlorine gas against civilians last month. Never mind that Assad looks likely to retain power in a good chunk of Syria, while the rest has become a base for Islamists and foreign jihadis who threaten the entire Mideast.

On Ukraine, the president also was bragging in Manila. “What we’ve done is mobilize the international community,” he said. “Russia has never been more isolated.” He added, “Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?”

No, they don’t. But sending the Ukrainian army MREs – yes, more of them – just makes us look foolish. People are asking whether, as was the case with those sent to the Syrian rebels, their sell-by date is about to expire.

Moreover, there is more Washington could be doing to squeeze Putin, who doesn’t yet believe he is isolated. Despite U.S. urging, Europe seems unwilling to risk its economic ties to Russia by backing stronger sanctions. NATO allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics – looking at Obama’s performance – worry that he won’t stand up to Putin.

The Russian leader looks poised to disrupt May 25 elections in Ukraine, and take effective control of east Ukraine with secret forces and local proxies. Yet, Obama appears unwilling to unilaterally impose further sanctions, although many European analysts say this would pressure Germany and other countries to follow suit. Nor has he put forward a strong international energy policy that could convince Moscow that Europe can wean itself off Russian gas.

In Manila, Obama seemed not to recognize that China is watching U.S. actions elsewhere. So are America’s Asian allies, who have to judge whether Washington will support them if Beijing makes aggressive moves.

They couldn’t have been reassured as Obama made clear his main lesson from Iraq: America should shrink its aspirations abroad. “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” the president said. He seemed to believe that he should rarely swing for the bleachers.

That kind of approach will convince Moscow, Beijing and Tehran that Obama can be ignored, which will create new foreign-policy headaches. It signals a president who isn’t really interested in the foreign-policy game.

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