President Barack Obama doesn’t have time, he told a reporter last week, "to lay out my entire foreign policy doctrine." Which is different, of course, than not having a doctrine at all. It's just that the Obama Doctrine is -- for good reasons and bad, by design and by happenstance -- underwhelming.
Obama is right that many of his critics "haven't learned the lesson of the last decade" about the cost and danger of drawn-out wars. And the public largely agrees with him: After thousands of U.S. casualties and well over a trillion dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show historically low levels of enthusiasm for U.S. interventions abroad. At any rate, fiscal pressures have sapped the U.S. military and diplomatic budgets, while partisan gridlock has been a constraint and a distraction -- Obama's trip to Asia, for instance, was delayed six months by a government shutdown.
At the same time, Obama's critics have a point: His own missteps have undermined the U.S.'s credibility and influence. Lofty rhetoric like that of his "New Beginning" speech in Cairo in 2009 faded into real-time vacillation over how best to spur change in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Stern presidential declarations on Syria that "Assad must go" have given way to tacit acceptance. Controversial intelligence programs, from drone warfare to electronic surveillance, have poisoned relations with critical allies. As a result, the post-George W. Bush global afterglow of Obama's election has faded: Since 2009, the confidence of people in other countries that Obama will "do the right thing regarding world affairs" has steadily declined.
So how do you maintain America's status as the "indispensable nation” while recovering from overstretch, contending with new rising powers, and responding to seismic upheaval in one of the world’s most volatile regions? Certainly Obama’s haphazard Syria policy -- which he peevishly tried to sell to his questioner as the best feasible course -- is no model. Nor is his record in Libya, where he looked away too quickly after Muammar Qaddafi 's demise, allowing the country to lapse into chaos.
U.S. boots on the ground aren't the right solution to every problem, either. And leadership doesn't have to mean picking up the tab -- as George H.W. Bush showed in the first Gulf War, which was financed mostly by Saudi Arabia, Japan and other countries. But it does require constant and carefully targeted effort.
The Obama administration has shown it can do this with its strong multilateral sanctions campaign against Iran. If it wants to achieve the same success in stopping Russia from subverting Ukraine, it must start by recognizing that pinprick sanctions have thus far had little deterrent value. Yes, alliance unity is important. But by adopting German Chancellor Angela Merkel ’s fuzzy redline that sectoral sanctions make sense only if Russia “disrupts” Ukraine’s May 25 elections, Obama has made his previous protestations about Ukrainian sovereignty ring hollow, especially as regional tensions rise. America's unwillingness to push for sanctions on Russia’s energy and financial sectors tells Putin everything he needs to know.
Global leadership can also be made manifest at home. Consider the administration's reluctance to ask Congress to vote, before the midterm elections, on granting trade promotion authority. Without that power, the Trans-Pacific Partnership that underpins the administration's pivot to Asia is in jeopardy. Japan has no incentive to make painful trade concessions without strong evidence that the U.S. is willing to embrace the agreement.
The president claims his policy is sensible baseball: "You hit singles, you hit doubles," he said. "Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” That’s nice. But in geopolitics, the standings matter more than the box score -- and right now, it looks as if the U.S. is slipping.
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