Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Obama’s Foreign Policy Has Been Anything But ‘Inactive’

It is a measure of how thoroughly our foreign policy debates are warped by a "do something" mentality that such an activist president could ever be accused of inaction abroad.

Judah Grunstein reviews Obama’s foreign policy record:

For all its obvious merits, Obama’s keen appreciation of the stakes of each decision he faces at times seems to have been an obstacle to action. And as I previously suggested, for all his sharp grasp of the details of foreign policy, Obama never quite understood that a U.S. president will be forgiven for doing almost anything, but never for doing nothing.

That is not the same thing as weakness. But even for someone who, like me, has a broad affinity for Obama’s stewardship of U.S. foreign policy, the results can at times feel just as unsatisfying.

The trouble I have with complaints about Obama’s supposed “inaction” overseas is that he has been among the most activist foreign policy presidents of my lifetime. He has presided over eight continuous years of foreign wars, two of which he started on his own authority without a Congressional debate or vote, and the U.S. routinely carries out strikes in numerous countries around the world. If he weren’t Bush’s successor, Obama would be correctly perceived as having a remarkably militarized and intrusive foreign policy that no impartial observer would dream of describing as inactive. He, some of his supporters, and many of his critics have effectively worked together to create the fiction that he is a “reluctant warrior,” but the reality is that he is responsible for launching two wars (Libya and war on ISIS), escalating a third (Afghanistan), supporting a fourth (Yemen), and backing at least one armed rebellion aimed at regime change (Syria). No one can credibly call this a foreign policy of inaction or reluctance to act, and yet we hear this claim all the time.

The only time in the last eight years when Obama seriously contemplated intervention and didn’t go through with it was when he proposed bombing Syria and then faced a massive popular backlash in 2013. Had it not been for the overwhelming opposition to his proposed bombing, his record would include one more illegal war that he started. It is possible to imagine an even more activist administration than the one we have, but it makes no sense to see Obama’s record as one of “inaction.”

Obama has been frequently criticized for “doing nothing” in response to foreign crises and conflicts, but in almost every case he has responded with sanctions, shipping arms to insurgents, or bombing, and sometimes he has responded with all three. His advisers frame his policy choices as resistance to foreign policy establishment “Blob,” but more often than not he accepts the assumptions of “the Blob” and differs with them only about the tactics that should be employed. If the results of these policies aren’t particularly satisfying to anyone, it is because Obama has usually accepted the premise of his critics that the U.S. must “act” and gradually gives in to at least some of the demands that his critics make. That leaves the U.S. stuck with policies of half-hearted meddling that seem sure to fail on their own terms, because they are sold as remedies to problems that they aren’t going to be able to solve.

It is a measure of how thoroughly our foreign policy debates are warped by a “do something” mentality that such an activist president could ever be accused of inaction abroad.



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