LONDON — President Obama’s first term failed to live up to the expectations of the left wing of his party, which hoped for a more radical change in domestic policy. His second term is likely to disappoint another important constituency — the media and foreign policy elites in Washington, D.C.
At the beginning of a new presidential term, prominent journalists and think tank experts have been expounding on what the president should do or not do in the next four years. Will he become more active — rather than reactive — now that he has won his last election? Will he concentrate on foreign affairs faced with Congressional deadlock at home? Should he take firmer action against Iran or intervene more directly in Syria, perhaps even in Mali?
Obama wasted no time in answering these questions. In a couple of remarkable interviews, he has made it clear that his response is either “no,” or ”I’d rather not.”
He told CBS News correspondent Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, “We do nobody a service when we take on things without studying the consequences.”
In an interview for The New Republic, he told Chris Hughes:
“I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? … What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
Obama addresses foreign policy problems with a keen lawyer’s intellect and a cool pragmatic mindset. That may not please activists on either the left or right, but it may be the most rational approach for a superpower that is overstretched both fiscally and militarily.
President Obama’s first administration was criticized by the media for its cautious and selective response to the so-called Arab Spring. Mass protests in Cairo made exciting television that invited comparisons to the 1989 democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe.
But the result two years later, especially in Egypt and Yemen, has been a change of leaders rather than revolutions and they are neither liberal nor democratic. In Libya, the result has been chaos. In Syria, the rebellion has been infiltrated by Islamic extremists with links to Al Qaeda.
It may be hard for the President’s critics to admit that his caution was warranted, but the facts seem to prove he was right. No matter how many pictures of pitiful refugees and bloody government atrocities in Syria the American media may broadcast, the President seems determined to limit American involvement to marginal aid to the rebels and to Syria’s neighbors.
The war in Libya was the template for the Obama approach to the turmoil in the Middle East. France took the lead to intervene in Libya and Washington took a back seat providing ammunition, intelligence, inflight refuelling and other support that the Europeans needed. That is the pattern the administration is following in Mali: no (or very few) American boots on the ground.
No matter how much the foreign policy and media community may plead for a more robust foreign policy, the president has American public opinion on his side. The nation – and apparently the Pentagon – has no appetite for more open-ended Middle East wars.
That’s a far cry from the days immediately after 9/11, when General Wesley Clark on a visit to the Pentagon was informed of a memo outlining US plans to use the 2001 attacks as a justification to invade and remove governments in seven countries in five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.
Iran’s nuclear program remains a major challenge. Here again, the Obama approach is pragmatic: negotiations backed by tough sanctions and the ultimate threat of force. Like Winston Churchill, who was reported to have said at a White House luncheon during the Cold War that “jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” the administration would rather talk than fight.
But it’s worth remembering that President George W. Bush entered the White House promising a “humble” foreign policy. And less then six months before 9/11 he reiterated, “In all our dealings with other nations, we will display the modesty of true confidence and strength.”
Events, not intentions, will shape the foreign policy of the Obama second term.