Roger Cohen misleadingly labels Obama’s foreign policy a “doctrine of restraint.” He then provides a summary that shows just how misleading it is:
In Afghanistan, in Libya and most devastatingly in Syria, Obama has seemed beset by ambivalence: a surge undermined by a date certain for Afghan withdrawal; a lead-from-behind military campaign to oust Libya’s dictator with zero follow-up plan; a statement more than four years ago that “the time has come” for President Bashar al-Assad to “step aside” without any strategy to make that happen, and a “red line” on chemical weapons that was not upheld.
Cohen’s incomplete review of Obama’s record already shows us no one should confuse the administration’s foreign policy with a restrained one. Obama has started two wars without Congressional authorization, escalated a third, lent significant support to yet another war waged by regional clients, and meddled in a fourth more half-heartedly than some ideologues would like. We see in Cohen’s summary that Obama is anything but restrained in his tendency to make sweeping statements and to issue ultimatums to other governments. The relevant point here is that Obama has repeatedly declared that foreign leaders “must” do this or that, as if he had the authority and right to tell them what to do. The fact that he has not always followed through or done so less aggressively than others would like doesn’t change the fact that he has presumed to insert the U.S. into crises and conflicts that don’t concern the U.S. at all. If that’s restraint, what would recklessness look like?
Obama’s “red line” error was in acting as if he had to back up an off-the-cuff statement with military intervention. No one forced him to commit publicly to military action in Syria in 2013. That is something he chose to do. Backtracking from launching an illegal attack on another country because of overwhelming public opposition doesn’t change that. Obama proposed taking unnecessary military action and was then constrained by opposition here at home. Had Cameron not been rebuked by Parliament when he was, it is more than likely that Obama would have followed through on his careless threat with unfortunate results for all concerned.
The trope that Obama exercises restraint in the use of American power is just as misleading as the common claim that he is “reluctant” to use force. To say that Obama has shown restraint overseas empties the word of almost all of its meaning. It is only when one compares Obama to even more hawkish alternatives that one can say this, but that isn’t saying very much.