Practice A Strong, Focused Foreign Policy

Six years after President Obama’s election, Americans have seen the damage that can be done when our foreign policy veers too far toward tentative retrenchment. All around the world, President Obama’s foreign policy ethos has been: We mean no harm to our enemies and lead from behind in defending our interests. Each year, that philosophy has generated new embarrassments, all culminating in the chaos we see around the world today.

This dynamic is clearest in the Middle East. In the Obama era, when enemy regimes have faced uprisings, we have held off from supporting resistance movements. Yet in moments requiring sober circumspection, as when allies have been overthrown by Islamists, the United States has instead offered encouragement to revolutionaries. We declare red lines we are unwilling to enforce against our enemies, as in Syria, sending mixed messages to all sides. When our friends face existential crisis, as is occurring now in Israel, we isolate them economically and preach the moral equivalence of their aggressors.

Worst of all, this occurs in the context of American withdrawal from the region despite the hard-fought gains achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving us increasingly irrelevant in the calculations of the players that are fomenting regional instability. Today, the situation is closer to regional war than it has been in many years. Our bad choices in the past have foreclosed good options in the present.

In every region of the world, President Obama’s foreign policy shortcomings have created similar turmoil.

President Obama began his Administration promising a reset with Russia underpinned by concessions on missile defense. Today, Russia is aligned with our enemies in Syria and Iran, and its aggression against Ukraine demonstrates the contempt in which it holds U.S. and Western interests. Years ago, the thought of a commercial airliner being downed by Russian-backed militants in European airspace would have been unthinkable. Today, it is yet another reminder that Westernization and progress are hardly assured when America fails to assert leadership.

The Obama Administration’s foreign policy in Latin America got off to a rocky start in 2009 when it tried to reinstate Honduras’s legally deposed president—a man who had blatantly violated his country’s constitution. This action sent a clear message throughout the region that has echoed during subsequent events in other countries. For example, this year’s crisis in Venezuela—the murders, the expulsion of American diplomats, the repression of political opposition to the Maduro government—has been met by muted concern from the United States. Such a posture is hardly conducive to advancing American interests in the region.

The Administration has made much of its “pivot” to Asia, but that push has been marred by American acquiescence to Chinese impositions, leading regional partners to question existing security arrangements. China’s recent adventures in the South and East China Seas are great cause for concern, and our allies have less reason every day to believe that when China disputes their territorial boundaries, the United States will have their backs.

Indeed, it’s hard to find a single point on the map in which the President’s approach has produced results.

There is an alternative, and it doesn’t mean putting America on a perpetual war footing. It’s an approach familiar to Americans who remember the Reagan years: unashamed projection of American strength aimed at deterring threats before they materialize. Small steps—such as ensuring that the US only provides for aid that serves US interests efficaciously and cost-effectively, for example—may have outsized influence. But more important will be the bold steps that will signal to the world that the United States does not ignore the transgressions of its enemies and is willing to provide the security guarantees needed to maintain peace.

Foreign policy is not one-size-fits-all. The consequences of any action can be unpredictable, and there is no such thing as a perfect prescription. Even so, it is no surprise that the policies of the past six years have provoked crisis after crisis. Global security requires committed projection of power by responsible stakeholders like the United States, and it is long past time for U.S. policy to reflect that truth.

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