Hillary Clinton surprised both Republicans and Democrats with her sharp criticism of President Obama over his foreign policy, calling it a "Don't do stupid stuff" strategy that did not conform to the definition of a policy at all.
Her assessment has merit but is also unfair. America's foreign policy is definitely scattershot but it is not the fault of the president. It is the fault of our culture. We are getting the foreign policy we have chosen.
On one hand, Americans are the most soft-hearted and empathetic people on earth, capable of feeling the pain of people an entire world away. And yet we also have a visceral hatred of war, preferring diplomacy to settle differences and sometimes even refusing to fight when it is the only way to prevent catastrophe. We do eventually wake up to reality but it is only after a massive humanitarian crisis such as the one now being witnessed in Iraq.
Our foreign policy, to put it succinctly, is reactive and not proactive and allows situations -- whether it be the rise of Al Qaeda, Hassad's regime in Syria, the pro-Russian movement in Ukraine, or ISIS in Iraq -- to deteriorate until there is no option from a humanitarian perspective but to commit military resources to it. In the process, we often make a bigger mess than we started, such as we have made in Iraq and Afghanistan. We detest conflict and therefore fail to take action in time to prevent a full-scale disaster.
President Obama is simply meeting this mandate given to him by the American people. It is arguable, of course, that as the commander-in-chief he should lead and not follow, but this particular president has been hamstrung on both sides by the Republicans and the Democrats -- each of whom have their own (sometimes hypocritical) belief system and agenda, and have been brutal in holding the President to it.
On the right, the GOP would love for him to launch as many wars as possible to support the defense industry and to appease the party's hawkish foreign policy beliefs, but also routinely attack him on the budget deficit and the government's inability to balance the books; and on the left, the Democrats demand that he not risk any U.S. lives but criticize his inability to save the lives of persecuted souls all over the globe. In other words, everyone expects the president to be a magician who can pursue a strong foreign policy and stand up for humanitarian causes without spending any money and without risking any American lives.
The White House's reactive strategy, then, is a direct response to these contradictory pressures and the best that it can do to address world crises. If we really want a more comprehensive foreign policy and a longer-term strategy for the Middle East, Russia, North Korea, and other problem areas of the world, the American people first need to rethink their own attitudes towards international intervention and only then can their leader really do anything about it. We need to make up our minds -- either we are willing to pursue a policy of preventing bloodshed across the world and make the personal financial and human sacrifice needed to do it, or we need to accept that we cannot save everyone and will have to accept the best that our government can do.
Peanut gallery criticism, which is what most of us offer, including at the moment Hillary Clinton, is disingenuous and counter-productive. It also sends a bad signal to the world that we don't know what we are doing, which is not true. President Obama does know what he's doing. The problem is that he just can't do much more given the constraints he works under.
Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He has also written two novels, available at www.sanghoee.com. Follow him @sanghoee.