• Obama’s legacy
    May 30,2014

    The conduct of foreign policy is always vulnerable to the temptations of saber rattling and nationalist bluster. Restraint, moderation, wisdom are often less salable in the marketplace of sound bites.

    In his speech at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama made the case for restraint and moderation, frustrated that saber rattling continues to resound from the wings, creating a din that undermines the effort to pursue a reasoned and pragmatic course.

    At the same time, awareness of the world’s tragic ongoing history often creates imperatives for action that prevent the United States, the world’s one “indispensable nation,” from retreating behind a moat of isolationism.

    The most acute crises at the moment are in Syria and Ukraine, but there are numerous other problem areas, including Myanmar, Mali, Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. In each instance, when events spin out of control, voices from the right in the United States rise up to chide Obama, saying his weakness has made things worse. It’s a cheap and easy accusation to make, and Obama is justified in responding with the question: What would you do instead?

    After 13 years of war in Afghanistan, few are insisting that the United States intervene militarily in Syria, much less Ukraine, where Russian meddling has fomented a growing insurgency among pro-Russian separatists. In fact, hasty, ill-conceived interventions have been one of the great failings of the post-World War II era.

    “Since World War II,” Obama said at West Point, “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.”

    The list of those mistakes, both overt and covert, is a long one: coups in Iran and Guatemala; the war in Vietnam; covert support for a coup in Chile; the invasion of Panama; covert support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq; the invasion of Iraq.

    Obama has not handled all of the knotty problems encountered during his tenure with skill. He has hewed to a line of restraint in Syria because he did not want American armaments to end up in the hands of dangerous jihadis as they had in the 1980s in Afghanistan. Thus, the civil war in Syria has become a horrific bloodbath.

    It is argued now that if the U.S. had armed moderate groups early in the conflict, the outcome might have been different. Early on, some of those moderate groups did not even want U.S. help. And there’s no guarantee that any power short of a U.S. invasion force was capable of dislodging Bashar Assad.

    Obama got tangled in his own rhetoric when he warned Assad not to cross a red line with chemical weapons, and he untangled himself only with the help of Vladimir Putin when Assad agreed to surrender his chemical weapons.

    Other actions that have drawn criticism were actually carefully calibrated and restrained responses to difficult problems, as in Libya, where Obama enlisted U.S. support for an international effort to topple Moammar Gadhafi. Libya still has not sorted itself out, but the United States has not signed up for the job of doing the sorting.

    The principal remaining threats are the various local terrorist groups that exist in those lawless regions where nations are failing or weak. They do not appear to be targeting the United States with the determination that al-Qaida did under Osama bin Laden. They require a coordinated international response, and Obama said it was the role of the United States to help lead that response.

    It’s easy for demagogues of the right to stoke nationalist sentiment, blustering about the need to be strong, and then steering nations off into misguided military adventures. Resisting those appeals to emotion has been one of Obama’s principal aims and will be one of the strongest elements of his legacy.

    At the same time, strength in defending the national interests of the United States is also essential, and Obama has sought to create an effective combination of pressure, force, diplomacy and persuasion to achieve our aims. Over time, that too will be seen as a positive legacy.

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