Obama delivered a speech in Belgium earlier this week on the Ukraine crisis. Among other things, he said this:
To be honest, if we define our — our interests narrowly, if we applied a coldhearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way. Our economy is not deeply integrated with Ukraine’s. Our people and our homeland face no direct threat from the invasion of Crimea. Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation. But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard, not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.
This touches on the point I was making in the earlier post about Obama’s foreign policy and public opinion. Depending on how the survey question is asked, most Americans say they don’t want the U.S. “too involved” in the crisis or they say that the U.S. has no responsibility to do something about it. Obama is directly ridiculing this position as narrow, cold-hearted, indifferent, and complacent. He happens to be wrong about that, too, but that isn’t my point here. He is telling a large majority of Americans that he thinks they are too small-minded and too indifferent to what happens in the world, and he implies that this position will make major wars more likely in the future. It’s a terrible argument on the merits (WWI was hardly the product of governments that took no interest in other nations’ conflicts), but more than that it is politically tone-deaf. Is that likely to be well-received by anyone that doesn’t already agree with him? No, of course it isn’t.
This should help explain why the public is now unhappy with Obama’s foreign policy. It’s not just that Obama has repeatedly done things abroad that have never been popular, but that he has justified them again and again with the same overblown, off-putting rhetoric. Worse, he keeps implying that the people that want the U.S. not to get involved in this or that crisis are somehow betraying American values. It’s a common argument, but I suspect more Americans are sick of hearing it than ever. He defended the decision to bomb Libya without Congressional authorization by saying that not doing so would have been a “betrayal of who we are.” Obama concluded his national address on Syria with boilerplate about American exceptionalism, and previously justified intervention as an expression of “who we are as a country.” The Brussels speech contained similar arguments.
Another factor in the unpopularity of Obama’s foreign policy is that Obama’s reputation for good judgment has been battered over the last three years. This has happened in part because he has allowed himself to be dragged by domestic critics and events into taking actions that the public doesn’t want because they seem to have no relation to American security or interests. This confirms the impression that Obama will eventually endorse bad policies, but it will just take him longer to do it than a more hawkish president might. He will never satisfy the hawks that want him to do more, but he also gives everyone else fewer reasons to support him each time he gets the U.S. involved in foreign crises and conflicts that the public wants him to avoid as much as possible.