What's Wrong With U.S. Foreign Policy?

09/08/2014 10:10 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2014
US President Barack Obama speaks on foreign policy in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on
US President Barack Obama speaks on foreign policy in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 16, 2014. Obama also said Wednesday that talks with Iran on its nuclear program have shown a 'credible way forward' and may need to run beyond a Sunday deadline. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama bashing has been one of the characteristics of the 2014 midterm election. For the last few months the president was accused of lacking foreign policy leadership. Republicans blamed Obama for deteriorating conditions in Iraq and Syria, implying the president is solely responsible for the bad news. What's wrong with U.S. foreign policy?

It helps to consider the historical course of our foreign policy. Before World War II, American foreign policy was guided by colonialism. We were the dominant power in this sector of the world and considered North and South America to be within our sphere of influence -- Europe, in particular, should stay away. This policy worked well for American business interests, less so for advocates of democracy.

In World War II we used our beefed-up military forces to defeat the Axis and established ourselves as the number one world power. With the Marshall Plan, our foreign policy shifted towards spreading democracy across the globe. During the Cold War this meant that if a country adopted socialism, it was the enemy. (In 1953 the U.S. fomented a coup in Iran that overthrew a pro-democracy, socialist regime.)

When America entered the Vietnam War, our initial objective was to defeat the forces of North Vietnam and introduce democracy to the unified country. Our loss had a negative impact on our perspective and since 1973 U.S. foreign policy has been reactive; we've been less interested in spreading democracy.

Theoretically, when confronted with a foreign crisis, the president should consider the short-term security interests of the U.S., as well as its long-term strategic interests.

The Bush administration justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq initially focused on short-term security issues: "[remove] a regime that developed and used weapons of mass destruction, that harbored and supported terrorists, committed outrageous human rights abuses, and defied the just demands of the United Nations and the world." Later strategic interests were included: "to change the Middle East so as to deny support for militant Islam by pressuring or transforming the nations and transnational systems that support it." The security phase had detailed planning. The strategic phase made a weak attempt to introduce democracy to the region.

The U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated that the U.S., 70 years after World War II, continues to be effective at regime change; we know how to conduct military operations that decapitate enemy leadership. However, we were not effective creating a stable civil society; we were not able to "change the Middle East so as to deny support for militant Islam." (To the contrary, in many regions we made things worse.) At present, America is not able to inculcate democracy and nip terrorism in the bud.

This grim reality explains why Americans are unhappy with our foreign policy, especially the situation in the Middle East -- the death of the promise of "Arab Spring." In the minds of most Americans our foreign policy is based upon our use of overwhelming military power buttressed by the rationale that when we send in the marines we are paving the way for democracy.

The first U.S. foreign policy problem is obvious: it's not working. We've been unable to bring democratic stability to the Middle East.

The second problem is that Washington politicians are unwilling to explain why our foreign policy isn't working. Instead they blame Obama -- although he wasn't the one who created the problem -- and argue we should send thousands of our troops back into the region. Few politicians are willing to tell the truth: the U.S. is responsible for the mess in the Middle East.

In this respect, the Obama administration's de facto foreign policy, "don't do stupid stuff," makes sense because Bush era foreign policy was stupid, starting with the poorly thought-out war in Afghanistan and continuing through the debacle of the invasion of Iraq. America doesn't have a long-term strategy to spread democracy.

President Obama has been characterized as overly cautious in his handling of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). But considering the U.S. track record in the Middle East over the past twenty years, there's good reason to be cautious.

The third U.S. foreign policy problem is that the world Americans desire to create for others should reflect the world we have created for ourselves. But, at this moment, American democracy is not strong. We cannot offer a shining beacon of hope for the world because we have substantial problems. Many of our citizens lack meaningful employment and adequate housing, food, and health care. Many of our children go to bed hungry and are receiving a sub-standard education. Many of our cities are overcrowded and polluted. Many of our citizens do not trust the government and, in particular, their local police force. These problems can be fixed, but Americans understand that we should not be touting democracy overseas when our own democracy is struggling.

Thus, the fourth U.S. foreign policy problem is that while our armed forces are strong our citizens are dispirited. While Americans are afraid of terrorists many are more afraid of their local police.

American foreign policy won't be right until we strengthen our democracy.