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What's So Terrible About Obama's Foreign Policy?

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The latest round of attacks on President Obama's foreign policy by his right-wing critics are ginning up the notion that Obama has lost credibility because of his failures to resolve the Ukraine crisis. In Op-Ed pieces, congressional statements, issues papers and media appearances, neo-conservatives and hard-line Republicans have hammered Obama for perceived "weakness" in responding to the upheavals in Ukraine. (Earlier, of course, they hit him over his policies in Syria, Egypt, North Korea, Iran and Libya for the same reasons.) Even Obama's foremost supporter, The New York Times, said in a Sunday editorial that the president has a "perception" problem of "dithering" and "inaction."

The main emphasis of this onslaught seems to be that the sanctions Obama has so far imposed on Vladimir Putin do not go far enough. Most importantly, they feel that Obama has unilaterally taken off the table any possible military action against the Russians, displaying a passivity in the face of outside intervention, thereby forfeiting any claim to American leadership. At the same time, though, no one in either the Democratic or Republican parties has demanded that the US put boots on the ground in Ukraine. Nonetheless, while there is no appetite for a wider war over a non-NATO country, there is still talk about arming the scattered troops of Ukraine's interim government.

Still what has happened to Obama in Ukraine (and his other conflict zones) is no different from what happened to previous Republican presidents facing similar crises in the past. For example, during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, following the Soviet intervention, President Eisenhower refrained from dispatching any US or NATO forces to thwart the Russian takeover because he realized such a move might lead to a nuclear war. Ronald Reagan, in his turn, in 1982 withdrew US soldiers from Lebanon after a terrorist bombing that killed 241 Americans rather than pursue a broader battle against an opaque and elusive band of Islamic militants. George H. W. Bush, for his part, held back from trumpeting America's triumph over Russia in 1989 after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire dissolved for fear that he might provoke a Russian retaliation. Finally, George W. Bush, took no action against Moscow when it seized territories of Georgia in 2008 out of his concern that, in doing so, he might start a third world war. Were all of these Republican leaders evincing cowardice -- or simply displaying realism?

Obama has understood from the beginning that, in certain global situations, American power is severely limited. Despite the overwhelming US military arsenal, we cannot police the world as we wish -- unless we want to risk miring ourselves in new Iraqs and Afghanistans. Our best use of our power is to use our diplomatic skills to resolve disputes without resort to armed action. Obama is now trying to do this in Syria, Iran, North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Ukraine. Obama's pragmatism may sometimes seem too cautious or too "small ball" -- but, so far, over six years he has kept the peace, brought our troops back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and saved our country from wars in Syria, Iran and Ukraine. Not a terrible record after all.