President Barack Obama ended his tour of several Asian countries on Monday with a passionate and unscripted defense of his foreign policy agenda, flogging his critics for having once championed more aggressive approaches during the years of his predecessor.
"For some reason, many who were proponents of what I consider to be 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 again," Obama said during a press conference in Manila with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. "Why? I don’t know. But my job as commander in chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it."
Obama's unusual remarks came in response to a question from a reporter from Fox News, and they reflected the intensity of his frustration with both the shortcomings of his foreign policy and those who criticize it. His language, which was raw and personal, carried a degree of pique and candor more often reserved for private Oval Office discussions.
"You got me all worked up," he later joked.
As foreign policy challenges have mounted around the world, Obama has repeatedly found himself accused of presidential weakness and a failure to lead. Critics have pointed to the recent Russian incursion into Ukraine and the continuing nightmare in Syria as evidence that American military might is no longer respected or feared.
But more aggressive action, when he has opted for it, has rarely been rewarded: In Libya, for instance, an American-backed operation to bring down the dictator Muammar Gaddafi did end his reign, but ultimately helped lead to a chaotic political situation and the catastrophic attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi -- itself the source of an extended bout of political sniping.
And, Obama argued on Monday, those critics fail to address the potential consequences of their more aggressive proposals.
"Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force," Obama said on Monday. "And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?"
In Syria, the president has watched for more than three years as a peaceful and once-optimistic uprising has devolved into a gruesome and intractable civil war. He has repeatedly resisted pressure -- much of it coming from within his own administration -- to rachet up military support for the opposition rebels in Syria. He has said his hesitation is largely due to the fact that his policy analysts have not been able to convince him that further intervention would not lead simply to more chaos.
"It’s not as if we did not solicit -- and continue to solicit -- opinions from a wide range of folks," he told the New Yorker magazine in January. "We have looked at this from every angle."
But in the Philippines Monday, he added what sounded like a note of deep resentment -- pointedly accusing critics of his approach of a sort of duplicity: vaguely seeking deeper American involvement while at the same time denouncing any specific steps that might lead to an ugly entanglement.
"I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, 'No, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops,'" Obama said. "Well, what do you mean? 'Well, you should be assisting the opposition.' 'Well, we’re assisting the opposition. What else do you mean? 'Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria.' Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike. So what else are you talking about? And at that point it kind of trails off."
Instead, pointing to the recent crisis in the Ukraine, Obama said he preferred a less "sexy" approach: a calibrated, low-profile set of diplomatic maneuvers, rather than the blunt force of military action, and all of the risk that it entails.
"In Ukraine, what we’ve done is mobilize the international community," he said. "What else should we be doing? 'Well, we shouldn’t be putting troops in,' the critics will say. 'That’s not what we mean.' Well, OK, what are you saying? 'Well, we should be arming the Ukrainians more.' Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?"
The result, he conceded, may not always appear heroic, or politically savvy.
"That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows," he said. "But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world."
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