international analysis and commentary

Obama’s speech and Foreign Policy: winding down excesses, but then?


The president must pinch himself every day; this is a man who cannot believe his luck. Despite spending money like a drunken sailor, presiding over an unemployment rate of 8.5%, and being forced to defend the deeply unpopular Obamacare, he must still be seen as the favorite to win re-election.

According to a Washington Post poll released just days ago, Tea Party darling Newt Gingrich has a net unfavorable rating of 22%, with almost one hundred percent of those polled recognizing him. This must make the crack Obama re-election team drool; everyone knows Gingrich, and most people cannot stand him. The same goes for the tepid Mitt Romney, who inspires fervor in almost no one. The State of the Union was a grand opportunity for Obama to use the bully pulpit of the presidency – that is, to appear presidential. And the contrast with the other clowns wouldn’t escape anyone.

That is the political context that explains the foreign policy aspects of Obam’s speech. Never does a president look as presidential as when he is dealing with foreign policy, an area where the constitution makes it clear (unlike over domestic affairs) that the president calls the tune. So dutifully – like a teenager being forced to eat spinach – Obama began and ended his address by talking about foreign policy.

But despite the usual unsubstantiated, feel-good nonsense that everything is fine – “Anyone who tells you America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they are talking about” – Obama’s laundry list of foreign policy successes told a very different tale, one of forced retrenchment.

The great worry is that while the president has acted sanely in policy terms and has begun to tailor America’s foreign policy coat to fit the cloth of relative decline, he is nevertheless rhetorically unable to confess this new reality to the American people. Until some leader has the courage to level with Americans, the dangerous canyon between what most Americans think the US can achieve and what it actually can do will remain the greatest danger marring America’s international efforts.

The president has conducted his first-term foreign policy much as bad banks are run in Europe: he has primarily wound down the excesses of his predecessor. But because he cannot level with his electorate about what multipolarity actually means – that is, a strategy to keep America powerful while peer competitors like China and India are nipping at its heels – he has yet to put much of anything new in place of these excesses.

The president rightly spent time celebrating the demise of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, thanks to the use of intelligence work, better policing, and drone attacks. But this successful approach in fighting al Qaeda, which has decimated its senior leadership quite effectively, is counter-terrorism; it is not the vastly more ambitious project of counter-insurgency (or nation building) ruinously propagated by the Bush administration in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Doing less and doing it better has worked well for the Obama White House. Wars of choice and nation building are out, both because of their ruinous legacy and because the country no longer has the money, the will, or the strategic freedom to indulge in such fantasies. Success has been predicated on recognizing limits – again, like a bad bank, winding down the horrid investments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am not sneering at what the White House has accomplished in terms of its “bad bank foreign policy”. The over-reaching neoconservative policies of the Bush administration had to be corrected; Iraq and Afghanistan had to be wound down, and no new adventures must be allowed to take their place. Indeed, the White House, through intelligent pragmatism, has seen the writing on the wall: in a multipolar world, America remains first among equals, but less and less able to shape global events on its own.

Oddly enough, and in direct contradiction to much of the criticism of this president, it is not his actions I find fault with. Rather, I find fault with the soaring rhetoric that continues to mislead his people about the true state of the world in 2012. A bad bank foreign policy has worked well enough in the first term. However, Obama will only be a successful foreign policy president – such as Harry Truman or Eisenhower – if he succeeds in creatively and overtly tying a remade American foreign policy to the new structural realities of the world he actually lives in.