Fred Hiatt: Obama swings for first base on foreign policy

05/22/2014 12:00 AM

05/21/2014 5:10 PM

Why is everyone piling on President Obama’s foreign policy – and how fair is the criticism?

A friend inside the administration asked me those questions last week, knowing that I’d been a critic for some time. The notion that Obama has been too passive, until recently a minority view, seems to be gelling into conventional wisdom.

Obama himself provided one spark last month when he characterized his foreign policy as one that “avoids errors.” His observation that “you hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run” may have been a fair description of a president’s job. But it struck many people as less ambitious than a U.S. president should be.

It came as the consequences of U.S. passivity were reaching a tipping point. Syria in ruins, China throwing its weight around the South China Sea, Russia invading Ukraine: The sum of these parts seemed greater than the arithmetic might suggest.

And Republican leaders, after several years of vacillating between isolationist Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and activist Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are inclining toward internationalism. That rebalancing reflects a shift among GOP voters.

If the critique becomes partisan, you can bet it will go too far, so it’s a good moment to ask my friend’s second question: How fair is the piling on?

Obama has not been an isolationist president. He has kept U.S. troops in Afghanistan long enough to train that country’s army and give its people a chance. He has chased al-Qaida in Pakistan, Yemen and beyond. He is negotiating ambitious trade agreements in Asia and Europe.

But Obama has failed to exercise U.S. leadership at key moments – the most heartbreaking being the missed opportunity of the Arab Spring.

Think back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, another unexpected breakthrough for freedom. After a bit of hesitation, the United States and Europe seized the moment, promising real benefits for countries that kept on the sometimes-rocky road to democracy. The West committed all the power and prestige of its alliance to that promise.

A quarter century later, the self-immolation of a fruit seller in Tunisia offered a similarly unexpected, historic chance. The United States and Europe could have offered encouragement and potential rewards – trade, scholarships, investment – to nations that took the democratic course for which millions of Arabs were clamoring. Obama instead treated the moment as an unwelcome distraction from his priorities (a nuclear deal with Iran, a “pivot” to Asia), and the moment was lost.

There’s no guarantee that U.S. leadership would have delivered a better outcome, of course. There’s no guarantee that if Obama had negotiated to keep 10,000 or 20,000 troops in Iraq, he could have forestalled that nation’s tragic slide back into civil war. There’s no guarantee that early assistance to the moderate rebels in Syria would have kept that nation from becoming a humanitarian crisis.

But in each case, we had a shot. In each case, Obama was urged to act, and chose not to. And leaders everywhere began to draw lessons from Obama’s emphasis on “nation-building at home.”

Avoiding confrontation is generally a good thing. But lack of purpose and clarity in foreign policy can invite confrontation, too. As that becomes more and evident, Obama may yet realize that the minimal response is one the United States can no longer afford.

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