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Opinion
 
Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

The problem with Obama's foreign policy

US leaders are trying to reassure Washington's allies but they going about it the wrong way

Published on Jun 2, 2014 5:49 PM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

THE United States is in the midst of a "Let's Reassure Our Allies" campaign.

Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel has spent the past few days in Singapore telling his Asian security colleagues that America's pivot to their region "is not a goal, not a promise or a vision - it's a reality".

And tomorrow, President Barack Obama is flying to Poland to shake the hands and pat the backs of Eastern European leaders who feel threatened by Russia's current military moves.

Yet, the very fact that such demonstrative acts are needed is in itself an indication of the problem facing the US.

Although Mr Obama is now making strenuous efforts to explain his foreign and security policies, the longer he talks, the more anxious America's allies get.

As a former top Pentagon official neatly put it, the US President is conducting "a very nuanced narrative" - so nuanced that at times people struggle to find its substance.

West Point speech

THE speech that Mr Obama delivered last week at the West Point military academy is a case in point.

The White House billed it as a major restatement of America's foreign policy, refuting accusations that Mr Obama's foreign policy is either listless or weak.

But the effort flopped at every level: It did little to reassure Mr Obama's supporters, and nothing to silence his critics.

The problem was not the fact that some of the key strategic challenges facing America - and especially those emanating from Asia - went unmentioned in Mr Obama's latest foreign policy statement.

After all, not every presidential speech needs to read like a supermarket shopping list, encompassing all the ingredients of the world's security problems.

Nor is there much to quibble over in terms of the President's fundamental message - that force, and especially the unilateral use of force, cannot be the first instrument in solving foreign policy problems, that wars are always easier to start than to end, or that the strength of the US cannot be measured by its military assets alone.

Still, apart from rehashing such cliche-ridden propositions, which are familiar to anyone who takes even a passing interest in world affairs, the President's speech did nothing to silence the debate about the course of America's security policy.

A median line

FOR a man who otherwise always emphasises moderation and flexibility, Mr Obama seems curiously obsessed with boxing his critics into only two camps: those who supposedly advocate unleashing a world war every time someone challenges the US, and the "isolationists", who would do nothing, regardless of what happens in the world.

Not surprisingly, Mr Obama disagrees with both camps, advocating instead a median line that is supposedly neither isolationist nor "over-reaching". The argument sounds so beguilingly convincing that one is left wondering just why it took over two centuries and 43 previous presidents for the US to reach such a brilliant conclusion.

The answer is, of course, that the Obama portrayal of the debate is a travesty of reality.

No sane-minded person has ever argued in such binary, black-and-white memes of perpetual war or celestial peace.

All of America's allies accept that the use of force should be the last rather than the first resort. And all know that, after a decade of heavy military engagement around the world, the US wants to limit its liabilities.

The question that Mr Obama has to answer is what role the use of military force can still play in "America's new state of engagement with the world", as he puts it. And the snag is that, on this count, Mr Obama's answer is to provide no answers.

Leading from behind?

THE President is no peacenik: He often accepts that conflicts such as those in Syria can or should be solved by military force.

The real distinction is that he does not believe such interventions should be led by the US.

As he put it in a moment of candour when discussing Syria, "it's not that fighting for that country is not worth it; it's that after a decade of war, you know, the US has limits".

However, the concept of "leading from behind" - the idea that crises can be handled according to America's wishes and priorities but without direct US engagement - remains nonsense.

It results in either botched operations such as those in Libya in 2011, or no action at all, as has been the case with Syria, Ukraine and, increasingly, the various tensions in the South China Sea.

What Mr Obama does not seem to understand is that America's role as the world's "indispensable power" - a status he wishes to uphold - depends on the US regularly acting well beyond its perceived national interests.

Once the US decrees that it will act only in its own interests, that it will "shed the unusual burdens of responsibility that previous generations of Americans took on in World War II and throughout the Cold War" - as historian Robert Kagan puts it in a searing, recently published critique of Mr Obama - then the entire security edifice that America created starts to crack.

Mr Kagan speaks for many foreign policy specialists who dismiss the current prevailing assumptions in Washington - according to which the US has neither the power nor the skill to deal with current global problems - as a "myth", embedded in a "plea of futility".

Sense of purpose needed

AND equally futile is Mr Obama's current effort to show that the US remains committed to its alliances.

That can work only if the US reiterates its commitments - including military ones - to its allies. Instead, the Americans seem to place a greater emphasis on downplaying their military pledges, on reminding allies that such military commitments are restricted in nature.

Strictly speaking, that is true. No alliance works like a blank cheque, or provides an unrestricted US military guarantee - not even the Nato treaty obliges the US to go to war in Europe under any circumstance.

Still, constantly reminding partners that Washington retains the right to decide how to interpret its military commitments is not likely to endear the US to its allies. It is like a husband trying to patch up his failing marriage by reminding his wife that he has a prenuptial agreement which limits his liability.

What allies need is not a reminder of their duties or treaty limitations, but a new sense of American purpose.

In the Asia-Pacific region, instead of just reiterating that the so-called pivot or rebalance is alive and well as Defence Secretary Hagel did repeatedly at the Shangri La Dialogue, the US should give a clearer sense of what it wants to do in the region and, especially, on how allies will be consulted in handling Washington's relations with China.

It is possible that, as global challenges multiply, Mr Obama and his officials may change tack.

But, if current US policies remain as they are, the president who came into office promising to deal "with the world as it is, rather than as it might be", could end his presidency with the world transformed in ways neither he, nor those who awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize ever envisaged.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com