A Bumbling Foreign Policy


bumbling_foreign_policy_2Historically, presidents have shifted from campaigning to governing following an election win.  Governance is often where a president forms his legacy, specifically with domestic economic results and foreign policy, which are the two things that are directly influenced by the actions or inactions of a president.  For President Obama, the economic results after 5 years have objectively not been good, and his handling of the crisis in Syria has exemplified a foreign policy that has ranged from unclear to contradictory to weak.  A president must be at his strongest with regard to economics and foreign policy, exhibiting unflinching leadership and resolve to preserve and advance America’s interests according to the Constitution.  In dealing with the Syrian crisis over the last year and leading up to the past few weeks, the President has routinely changed his positions and changed them again, leaving the world unsure and his own country confused.  This is yet another great example of a President who is a historically great campaigner but is very hesitant and reluctant when it comes to governing and leading.

In Libya in 2011, Moammar Gaddafi took similar actions as Syrian President Assad, as he began ruthlessly attacking his own people in efforts to quell a rebel uprising.  President Obama initially declined to get involved, even rejecting participation in proposed no-fly zones to prevent Gaddafi from using aircraft to strike his citizens.  The French and the British took the lead to rally NATO to organize strikes, then Obama relented and the US got involved.  This led to the criticism that the President’s foreign policy was one of “leading from behind.”  Of course, once the operation was successful and Gaddafi was taken down, the President was the first to claim leadership in the coalition.  He said “I and Americans took leadership in organizing and international coalition… [To] liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years.”  Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen commented that Obama’s claims of having led the coalition in Libya were among the most dishonest of the entire foreign policy debate.  Additionally, the situation in Libya is comparable to the current crisis in Syria… a power-hungry Dictator waging war against his own people was taken down by brief airstrikes (in support of a mixed bag of “rebel” forces) with no succession plan.  As a result, Libya has descended into near chaos and is ruled by a group of militias that have shown no indication that they want democracy.  The Libyan intervention culminated one year ago with the disaster in Benghazi, as anti-American sentiment reached its tilt, yet these actions were met with no consequences as President Obama has done nothing to resolve the killing of an American ambassador.

Iran Green Movement

Another recent example of foreign policy apathy and reluctance is the President’s lack of any support for the pro-democracy Green Movement in Iran.  Iran is defying the US and the international community by pursuing nuclear weapons, they make continual and numerous threats to the US and to Israel, and they are certainly a threat to security and stability in the Middle East.  Syria exists as a client state or proxy of Iran, who has a vested interest in maintaining the Assad regime.  Functionally strengthening pro-democracy movements (or at minimum, supporting verbally) in Iran in 100% in the interests of the US, but President Obama never offered any show of support or backing.  During their protests of election results in ’09-10, Green members were violently persecuted and imprisoned, and President Obama’s response was a generalized statement affirming the “universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.”  Iran does potentially pose a direct threat to US interests and Israel but the President chose not to get involved or be associated with an opposition clamoring for democracy in Iran.


The confusing nature of the President’s foreign policy is perhaps most clearly seen with the numerous reversals and policy changes concerning Syria (for an explanation of the Syrian conflict click here).  Considering there is arguably no direct US interest at stake, it is puzzling why the President has potentially chosen a military solution to deal with Syria, particularly since there is little to no international support for such an action.  The President was vehemently against the Iraq war, despite Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons on at least 5,000 of his own citizens (with evidence that that number could be closer to 50,000).  He said “An invasion of Iraq… without a clear rationale and strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst impulses of the Arab world and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”  Now, Syrian President Assad kills nearly 100,000 of his own people with no action from President Obama, but then uses chemical weapons on 1,500 and the President wants to strike even without international support.  Despite no plans to remove Assad from power or really even change the situation, the President seems prepared to lob some missiles into Syria, hoping that Assad decides to quit using brutality on his people, even though Assad knows that President Obama would never send ground troops and seemingly has no plans for a regime change.  In President Obama’s world, an action against Iraq after Saddam gassed over 5,000 is “dumb” but an action against Syria after Assad chemically attacked 1,500 is the “right thing to do.”  Take a look at the President’s foreign policy ineptitude with this timeline of events:

  • April 2011 – following President Assad’s military action against his own people, President Obama declared that Assad “had to go” yet took no action to further efforts to remove him.
  • August 2012 – the killings in Syria continue, estimates of up to 20,000 killed, and a UN panel indicts President Assad for war crimes.  When President Obama was asked about the US position with regard to the slaughter, he declared “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized, that would change my calculus.”  However, no US action is taken.
  • June 2013 – the death toll in Syria approaches 100,000.  President Obama now authorizes arming the Syrian rebels in their fight against Assad; however, as reported by the Wall St. Journal, no arms or military aid was ever received by the rebels (as of early September).
  • August 21, 2013 – reports surface that nearly 1,500 Syrians are killed by a chemical attack that several intelligence agencies attribute to President Assad.  Sec. of State John Kerry says that the US will take military action and that President Obama would order a “shot across the bow.”
  • August 31, 2013 – No military action has been taken, President Obama addresses the American people and says he will now ask Congress for authorization to use military force even though he believes he has the right to strike unilaterally.  Congress is not set to reconvene until September 9th.
  • September 4, 2013 – President Obama denies setting a “red line” and also waffles on whether he will take military action if Congress does not authorize a strike.  He said “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line.”

Even the President’s supporters are admitting that he has badly botched the handling of this crisis, but it stands to reason that a President that has shown little interest in governing and leading would be extremely hesitant to take an action that could be wildly unpopular with the American people.  He keeps committing and then backing off as his campaigner mentality surfaces.  Now that he has essentially passed responsibility to Congress to decide whether we strike, he is boxed in politically and is limited in his capacity to lead.  As the Economist pointed out, “even with a victory in Congress, Mr. Obama will have weakened the credibility of foreign policy… the executive needs to be agile and quick when dealing with the world [and] sometimes needs to take hard and unpopular decisions.”  At this point, President Assad has had over two weeks to strategically move or hide weapons systems, likely into civilian areas, and so any US strikes will have little to no impact on Assad’s capabilities.  When it comes to foreign policy, a president must be decisive; he must not dither and cater to polls or popularity.  The President again tried to duck responsibility when he spoke to the world at the G20 summit in Russia; he said “My credibility is not on the line.  The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”  So much for “the buck stops here,” in President Obama’s world the buck stops anywhere but with him.  President Truman must be rolling over in his grave.

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