As he was traveling in Asia, President Barack 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.
In Manila, Obama 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.
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.
Moreover, there is more Washington could be doing to squeeze Vladimir Putin, who doesn’t yet believe he is isolated.
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.
In Manila, Obama seemed not to recognize that China is watching U.S. actions elsewhere.
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.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.