In his commencement speech at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama addressed much of the criticism that has been thrown his way recently regarding his inability to project American dominance on the rest of the world in the same way his predecessors have done before him. Most people would agree that Obama has been leery of armed conflict since taking office in 2009, and justifiably so, after the two costly wars former President Bush thrust the U.S. into in the early 2000s. And certainly in certain contexts, isolationism can be an overarching framework that helps shape a country's foreign policy decisions -- one has to look no further than the United States leading up to the second World War, after World War I left such an awful taste in its mouth. However, President Obama has not used isolationism as his foreign policy framework; rather, he has no framework. And as his tenure as Commander in Chief winds down over the next few years, it's that very lack of framework that will come to haunt his legacy, and possibly set the global political arena on a path the United States will wish it had avoided.
President Obama's first term in office saw several smart foreign policy moves. Although he had to concede to sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan early on, he sped up the timeframe for bringing troops home, following through on one of the campaign promises that had gotten him elected. With the war in Iraq winding down, he was symbolically finishing the job that former President Bush had started, but had not been in a position to finish on his own. The Arab Spring also showed great promise for the Middle East, and Obama's outline of a plan to restart peace talks between Israel and Palestine signified a potentially monumental change in how the entire region operated and perceived the United States. And finally, Obama's handling of Libya arguably could not have been better executed. Without putting American troops at risk, Obama provided NATO with the American support it needed to stabilize -- albeit temporarily -- the country and help set it on a path to democracy.
Since 2011, things have not gone as smoothly. The war in Syria has not only continued, but worsened with each month, with a death toll of over 160,000 today. President Obama's "Red Line" regarding the use of chemical weapons would be laughable if the repercussions had not be so tragic. Despite continued talks of aiding the rebels, very little aid was distributed, and now it appears that it's too late for any real support, as the opposition is so fractured it's hard to tell who is an honest Syrian citizen fighting for independence, and who is an Islamic radical taking advantage of the instability to sow seeds of hatred against the West.
Many proponents of Obama are chalking the crisis in Ukraine up as a victory for Obama -- himself included, in his speech at West Point. Indeed, the solidarity that Western nations showed in dealing with an aggressive Russia was impressive, and seems to have temporarily subdued President Putin. However, economic sanctions are not the answer to everything, and shouldn't be treated as such. Before Putin backed down, he was essentially given carte blanche to storm into Crimea and seize it, in a display of showmanship that the world has scant seen since the mid-20th century. It set a poor example for other countries in similar situations, such as China, who is looking to project their power and has nationalist interests in Taiwan and Tibet; or the Kurds scattered among Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan who have long sought after an independent state. Essentially, it was another instance where President Obama floundered and chose to implement his usual policy: don't really do anything, and hope for the best.
Obama asserted in his West Point speech that the new threat to America was terrorism -- not necessarily al-Qaeda, but in a broader sense, the diverse and widely scattered factions that exist all over North Africa and the Middle East today. His announcement to push for funding to go towards counterterrorism training in the countries where these threats exist was meant as an indicator that he is being proactive in facing the modern problems of the world. However, this statement comes at an interesting time, as the United States has kept its distance from the crisis in Nigeria, where weeks ago a militant faction known as Boko Haram abducted hundreds of schoolgirls who remain in their captivity. Obama's surreptitious use of drones for the past few years have probably done as good a job as possible of mitigating the spread of terrorist cells across the region known as MENA, but now that he has vocalized the threat these cells pose to American interests, he will have to significantly ramp up the efforts that are made public to address them.
That's besides the point, however, because terrorism is not the only threat in today's world. China is grossly projecting its power onto the surrounding region, causing a rise in tension that will undoubtedly affect the United States' relationships with Japan, South Korea, and other nearby allies. To his credit, Obama has long spoken of a "pivot" in military power to the region, but that has not necessarily come to fruition; meanwhile, his Trans-Pacific Partnership has yet to fully materialize, also damaging the image Obama sought to display of American power in the region. Israel and Palestine have yet to reach a peace agreement; Iran nuclear talks have stalled; unrest in Venezuela has not reached a fever-pitch in the same way the Ukraine did months ago, yet persists; and above all, disagreement worldwide (and domestically) on climate change is leading the world collectively over the figurative cliff, at which point there will be no turning back and the ramifications will be devastating. To say terrorism is the threat we must now address head on and invest new resources in seems more of an avoidance tactic than anything else.
Many presidents in the past have worked within a framework that helped guide all decisions on foreign policy, dating back to President Monroe and the Monroe Doctrine, which fundamentally shifted U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. While at points appearing to try, President Obama has not developed such framework of his own. Careening forth from crisis to crisis, he has managed not to be too disruptive to the world order, although American dominance has certainly waned. For the next two years of his presidency, Obama must assert himself not through military force, as many war-hawks are arguing, but through concise and well thought out uniform foreign policy -- his legacy as president depends on it.