Damon Linker comes to a curious conclusion about Obama’s foreign policy:
In foreign policy, Obama has had a very different problem. Far from being too straightforwardly aggressive, the president has combined extreme rhetorical restraint (that has often made him sound weak or passive when discussing national threats, including terrorism) with over-extension.
I won’t argue with the second part of that statement, but the first part seems wrong. I wish it were true that Obama practiced “extreme rhetorical restraint,” but I don’t think the record supports that. One of Obama’s most annoying habits as president is that he has gone out of his way to make statements about foreign crises and conflicts that he can’t or won’t back up with actions to match. Indeed, one reason Obama has presided over so many meddling and interventionist policies is that he has often trapped himself by engaging in rhetorical overkill when he could and should have said as little as possible.
Obama declared that Assad “must go” back when he thought that Assad was on the way out anyway, and that declaration seemed to imply a commitment to remove him from power when Obama wasn’t prepared to do that. However, because Obama had made that statement, he was stuck gradually yielding to demands that he “do more” in Syria. Later, he issued the so-called “red line” warning that trapped him into proposing military action that he must have known would be useless, and he managed to get out of following through on the warning only because the British and American publics rebelled against a new intervention. Since then, Obama has blithely taken credit for having the courage to escape the trap that he set for himself. When he then followed the Washington “playbook” to the letter a year later and launched the war on ISIS, he engaged in more rhetorical overkill when he said that the goal of the war would be to “destroy” ISIS. Once again, the gap between Obama’s stated goal and the means he was willing to employ was very wide. I noted the same thing in the administration’s response to the conflict in Ukraine:
If there is one thing that links all recent administration foreign policy errors, it is the tendency to seem to promise more than it is realistically going to deliver.
One recurring theme in Obama’s foreign policy decisions since at least early 2011 is that he leaves a huge gap between his speeches and the policies he is actually prepared to carry out. We have also seen this in his handling of client states. He has chided clients for being “free riders” and criticized some of their behavior, but nonetheless provides them with unprecedented levels of support and gives them extensive diplomatic cover for the very behavior he was criticizing. This has managed to annoy the clients without holding them accountable for the behavior that Obama has rightly criticized, and it has made sure that the U.S. remains deeply complicit in their wrongdoing even as our officials lightly scold them.
The one time that Obama wisely kept silence in response to a major foreign upheaval was during the Green movement protests in Iran all the way back in 2009, and at the time he was absurdly faulted by most Western observers for not having “spoken out.” I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that Obama and his advisers took those criticisms far too seriously and decided that they would be sure to “speak out” the next time an opportunity presented itself. Ever since, Obama has rarely missed a chance to make ill-advised and unnecessary comments that have either created false expectations or trapped the U.S. into taking irresponsible actions.