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Why Obama's Foreign Policy Is So Unpopular (Hint: It's Not His Realism)

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Never before in the history of the United States has there been such a yawning gap between the rhetoric of American power and its application abroad. Let us recap: President Obama warned of that if Bashir al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people in Syria, "that would change my calculus. That would change my equation." That to liberal hawks and neoconservatives presumed military intervention. Yet, after Assad took a gallant leap over Obama's "red line" last August and gassed hundreds of civilians, the United States did nothing militarily. Likewise, President Obama warned the Russians there would be "consequences for their actions" if they swallowed up Crimea by force. Yet, after Putin did just that, the United States merely slapped sanctions on a few Russian insiders, who mocked America's flaccid response. As Les Gelb, author of Power Rules, writes, "Threats unfulfilled diminish power."

Which is unfortunate because American threats used to matter. We didn't even have to wield our military power, just arch our eyebrow, as it were, and countries would cower just on the presumption of avoiding our ire. Alan Henrikson, writing in 1981, called this the "aura of power." Once one has to actually deploy its military, it has failed at deterrence. During the 1970 Jordan hijacking crisis, for example, the United States did not deploy troops, but quietly ordered an aircraft carrier to the coast of Lebanon and readied some C-130s at Incirlik airbase in Turkey. As Henry Kissinger would recall later, "Our silence would give them an ominous quality." During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Moscow mobilized its forces in the southern part of the Soviet Union, Nixon raised the nuclear alert level and the Soviets backed down.

No such shows of force, however, are effective when the credibility of the leader of the free world is called into question. Never before have our alliances or commitments to our allies appeared on shakier ground. As Poland's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, was caught telling a colleague, "the Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It's bullshit." Or consider Japanese concerns over whether the United States will honor its treaty commitments to protecting its territorial integrity. As one Japanese expert told the New York Times, "The Crimea makes us feel uneasy about whether the United States has not only the resolve but the strength to stop China. Between the Pentagon budget cuts, and the need to put more forces in Europe, can the United States still offer a credible deterrence?"

These are valid concerns, what with China declaring an "air defense identification zone" near disputed islands which would provide it justification to use force against enemy aircraft. Another concern is North Korea, which has threatened additional nuclear and missile tests. There is a widespread perception that Obama is all too willing to throw his allies under the bus, and does not back up his rhetoric with actions. Yes, the United States just dispatched two ballistic missile destroyers to Japan as a symbolic deterrent to North Korea. But nobody believes the United States will credibly use force if push were to come to shove.

The foundation of deterrence is both capability and credibility. Nobody doubts that the United States does not possess sufficient military potential to deter any aggressor anywhere on the planet. Our military spending dwarfs that of the next ten countries' defense budgets combined. But all the weapons in the world cannot restore the credibility of our commitments. We have a president whose naive devotion to changing the culture of Washington has crept into how he relates to the rest of the world -- that the US is really powerless to make a difference and that our adversaries can be moved by persuasion and not power alone. He has ignored real crises in Syria and simply said effectively, well, we looked into that and decided our going in would make the situation worse. But in fact, his most senior advisers actually argued just the opposite, that arming the rebels back when they had momentum and comprised moderate secularists may have shifted the war's balance of power.

No wonder that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of this administration's foreign policy, according to a recent poll in the New York Times, the highest it's been since Obama took office in 2009. Even one-third of Democrats think his foreign policy is a shambles. Obama's backers describe his worldview as one of "restraint," that he is acting strategically to avoid getting us into more foreign entanglements. Obama is said to be a big fan of the biography of McGeorge Bundy, Lessons in Disaster. But he is learning the wrong lessons from Camelot. As JFK asked Arthur Schlesinger after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, "What is prestige? Is it the shadow of power or the substance of power? We are going to work on the substance of power." Obama is so scared of a similar predicament -- a kind of Bay of Pigs-style fiasco -- that he has punted on nearly every major foreign policy crisis. This presidency possesses neither the shadow of power nor the substance.

Nor does Obama's policy of so-called "restraint" square with his penchant for making bold threats to our adversaries. If he truly wants the United States to retrench or be more selective with its commitments, then Obama should stop threatening the Assads and Putins of the world that they will incur the wrath of the United States when no such reckoning is in the cards. My beef with Obama is that his words (Nobody pushes us or our allies around!) does not match his rhetoric (Let's boot Russia out of the G8!).

It would be easy to dismiss this as an unqualified former community organizer and cerebral law professor who found himself as the most powerful man in the world, and just isn't comfortable wielding power on a global scale. He has preferred light footprints or no footprints at all to taking bold military actions, which explains his addiction to drones, and our "leading from behind" policy in Libya. Gone are the days when America could arch its eyebrow, as it were, and get its way. What Henrikson described as the "emanation of [American] power" is now a distant memory.

The trouble is not that the administration is trying to put out too many fires or lacks the bandwidth, as Stephen Walt and others have charged. It is that it has zero confidence in its ability to do anything at all, an incredibility of how power works sprinkled with a dangerous mix of naiveté from the Middle East to East Asia. This is not realism, as many of Obama's liberal critics claim, it's neo-isolationism dressed up as prudent restraint. It's a blind faith that ignoring regional issues like Iraq will make them go away. It's reacting to crises like Iraq, not preempting them proactively. So long as Obama believes that persuasion trumps power, he will have zero accomplishments on his foreign policy docket besides taking out Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the Syrian war is entering its fourth year, the former Soviet Union is being redrawn by the Kremlin's hawks, and the Middle East is coming unglued.

Joseph Nye of Harvard has written that incrementalist leaders (Dwight Eisenhower) tend to be more effective and leave a more indelible ink on the world than transformational ones (Woodrow Wilson). The trouble with Obama is that he is neither. He does not believe in the ability of American power to achieve its aims abroad. His speeches are inspirational, but his actions abroad are anything but. That is not a shrewd policy of restraint or realism -- that's just cluelessness on how the world works.

[Note: A version of this essay appeared at Cicero Magazine here]