What's So Terrible About Obama's Foreign Policy?

by Stephen Schlesinger Stephen Schlesinger is an Fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City. He is the former Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York City (1997-2006). Mr. Schlesinger received his BA from Harvard University and his JD from Harvard Law School. In the early 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine. Thereafter he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For twelve years, he served as Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy advisor. In the mid 1990s, he worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with global cities. He is coeditor of "The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger Jr." published by Random Hiouse in 2013 and of Journals 1952-2000 by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published by Penguin in 2007. He is also the author of three books, including Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award; Bitter Fruit: The Story of the U.S. Coup in Guatemala (with Stephen Kinzer), which was listed as a New York Times "Notable" book for 1982 and has sold over 100,000 copies; and The New Reformers. He is a specialist on the foreign policy of the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations. He is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation Magazine, and The New York Observer. In 1978, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. He has appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe", "Hardball" with Chris Matthews, "The Daily Rundown" with Chuck Todd, The Today Show, CNN, Fox TV, NPR and other media outlets. His website is: stephenschlesinger.com. He can be reached at 08.05.2014

The latest round of attacks on President Obama's foreign policy by his right-wing critics are ginning up the notion that Obama has lost credibility because of his failures to resolve the Ukraine crisis. In Op-Ed pieces, congressional statements, issues papers and media appearances, neo-conservatives and hard-line Republicans have hammered Obama for perceived "weakness" in responding to the upheavals in Ukraine. (Earlier, of course, they hit him over his policies in Syria, Egypt, North Korea, Iran and Libya for the same reasons.) Even Obama's foremost supporter, The New York Times, said in a Sunday editorial that the president has a "perception" problem of "dithering" and "inaction."

The main emphasis of this onslaught seems to be that the sanctions Obama has so far imposed on Vladimir Putin do not go far enough. Most importantly, they feel that Obama has unilaterally taken off the table any possible military action against the Russians, displaying a passivity in the face of outside intervention, thereby forfeiting any claim to American leadership. At the same time, though, no one in either the Democratic or Republican parties has demanded that the US put boots on the ground in Ukraine. Nonetheless, while there is no appetite for a wider war over a non-NATO country, there is still talk about arming the scattered troops of Ukraine's interim government.

Still what has happened to Obama in Ukraine (and his other conflict zones) is no different from what happened to previous Republican presidents facing similar crises in the past. For example, during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, following the Soviet intervention, President Eisenhower refrained from dispatching any US or NATO forces to thwart the Russian takeover because he realized such a move might lead to a nuclear war. Ronald Reagan, in his turn, in 1982 withdrew US soldiers from Lebanon after a terrorist bombing that killed 241 Americans rather than pursue a broader battle against an opaque and elusive band of Islamic militants. George H. W. Bush, for his part, held back from trumpeting America's triumph over Russia in 1989 after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire dissolved for fear that he might provoke a Russian retaliation. Finally, George W. Bush, took no action against Moscow when it seized territories of Georgia in 2008 out of his concern that, in doing so, he might start a third world war. Were all of these Republican leaders evincing cowardice -- or simply displaying realism?

Obama has understood from the beginning that, in certain global situations, American power is severely limited. Despite the overwhelming US military arsenal, we cannot police the world as we wish -- unless we want to risk miring ourselves in new Iraqs and Afghanistans. Our best use of our power is to use our diplomatic skills to resolve disputes without resort to armed action. Obama is now trying to do this in Syria, Iran, North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Ukraine. Obama's pragmatism may sometimes seem too cautious or too "small ball" -- but, so far, over six years he has kept the peace, brought our troops back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and saved our country from wars in Syria, Iran and Ukraine. Not a terrible record after all.

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