Obama Foreign Policy: A Ship without a Sail

Much ink has been spilled in attempts to construe the meaning and significance, the sincerity or political opportunism, of the remarks made by Hillary Clinton about American foreign policy in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in Atlantic magazine. Interpretations will differ on the reasons for her indicating differences with President Barack Obama, especially on Middle East policies, and on the variances between her present and past statements on those policies.

It is not really necessary to ponder this less than earthshaking issue. Machiavelli, in tough-minded language in The Prince, said it all, six hundred years ago: “Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless, our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account.”

Much more and highly important for discussion of American foreign policy are the underlying differences between President Obama and his critics on the direction of international politics. Obama has made his position clear: he is cautious, has no enthusiasm for American military action, is reluctant to become involved unilaterally, and would limit any action taken in scope and in time. Critics, presumably now including Clinton, whether for political calculation or not, would favor a more assertive policy on the Middle East and other international issues. Above all, the main difference between the two points of view is deciding whether America’s national interest is served by a policy of intervention in world affairs.

There is a long history of American reluctance to engage in an activist foreign policy. From the beginning the Founding Fathers struggled with the issue, and with variations of what may be called isolationism, non-interventionism, and assertion of American power. To some extent we are still influenced by those early views on the degree to which the U.S. should participate, economically, politically, and militarily, in world affairs.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796, thought the general rule of conduct was to have as “little political connection as possible” with foreign nations. It would be unwise, he said, “to implicate ourselves… in the ordinary vicissitudes of her (European) policies, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enemies.” Yet, equally important, Washington thought the U.S. “could safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

President Thomas Jefferson in his Inaugural Address of 1801 also spoke of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” Yet, without any alliances, Jefferson was the first president to engage the U.S. in a war fought on foreign land when he sent the Marines in 1804 to deal with the Barbary Pirates in Tripoli. His action is immortalized in the hymn of the Marines…”to the shores of Tripoli.”

It was John Quincy Adams who on July 4, 1821 articulated the firmest position on isolationism. The U.S. “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” He warned against being party to “all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.” Yet, if Adams did not destroy monsters, he did negotiate successfully with foreign nations, with Britain over Oregon, and with Spain, from whom the U.S. acquired Florida.

It is easy to understand the past and present unwillingness of American leaders to be drawn into military activity not directly related to self-defense of American territory. Equally, many leaders have been hesitant about alliances with foreign countries, even though paradoxically the American rebellion against Britain necessitated an alliance with France.

The problem is compounded today by attitudes of the population on the use or misuse of American power. On key issues today, public opinion polls over the last year indicate that the majority of the public do oppose greater U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, while strongly favoring withdrawal from Afghanistan. Overwhelmingly, polls show that the U.S. population believes that American military force should be used only to defend the homeland.

That belief coincides with the actions of the Obama Administration. It was reluctant to launch limited air strikes after Syria used chemical weapons against civilians, or to act in Syria to arm the moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime. Similarly, the U.S. air strike in mid-August 2014 to rescue some 35,000 Yazidi refugees trapped on a mountain range by ISIS fighters has been limited in scope by administration decision.

Nevertheless, although more assertive action carries risks for American lives and is economically costly, the limited Administration policy is mistaken. The failure to act in Syria and Iraq has made the problem more difficult to manage because it has contributed to the increase in strength and popularity of Islamic extremist groups.

What is fundamentally lacking is a basic principle on which policy can be based. Neither the Obama Administration, nor those who support the noninterventionist or so called “non entangling alliances” policy of Senator Ron Paul, and many in the Tea Party, have come to grips with current problems, including Ukraine, Georgia, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Nigeria.

Above all there is the threat of Islamic extremism and militancy in the world, particularly in the Middle East and West Africa. Neither a policy of isolationism nor one of nonintervention is appropriate to meet the current threat. Western democratic principles must prevail over that Islamist threat which must not simply be contained but must be defeated.

That threat is active in a number of countries, but its most aggressive and menacing manifestations are the actions of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, President Obama declared on August 6, 2014 that he would not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. Again, the majority sentiment in the country, as found in a poll by the Pew Research Center, was that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

Perhaps one can differentiate this distaste for going to war from a stance of isolationism. Such a distinction is difficult in view of another recent poll that registers 80 per cent of the public as agreeing that the U.S. should “not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems.” One can agree that the U.S. should not be the sheriff of the world. Alexander Hamilton warned that it was “not warrantable” for the U.S. to promise “to assist every people who may wish to recover their liberty, and to defend their citizens.” But this does not entail withdrawal from the world.

Two problems result from nonaction or rudderless activity. One is the prospect that the sentiments expressed in the polls may result in even more inaction by the administration. The other is the consideration that inaction is causing other countries to assert that the U.S. is less important and powerful as a world leader, and less respected, than it was.

The underlying problem is that the administration does not have a real strategy to indicate what kind of intervention may be necessary or to be successful. It must overcome the growing isolationist mood. The U.S. is not being manipulated by outside forces, as was argued by isolationists in 1940, trying to prevent American help in the war against Nazism, though bigoted anti-Semites today may claim there is a “Jewish conspiracy” at work.

It may be that the threat of Islamic Jihad does not appear as blatant or dire as was Hitler’s ruthlessness and paranoia. Yet the actions of ISIS in creating what it terms an Islamic Caliphate indicate the danger. Can the U.S. stand idle in view of images of the brutality of this new regime? To this point it has murdered 5,500 and injured 11,000. It is responsible for the deaths of 500 Yazidis, men, women, and children, buried alive in mass graves, for causing thousands of Iraqis to become refugees, and for the humanitarian crisis in Kurdistan.

American policy must take account of the threat in Iraq. ISIS has declared that the Shiites of Iraq are infidels who will be killed if they do not convert to Sunni Islam. It must also take account of the intentions of Hamas to eliminate the State of Israel and to establish a Caliphate in the areas it is able to control.

President Obama knows that force may sometimes be necessary. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech of December 10, 2009 he remarked, “A non violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.” It is arguable whether the ambitions of the Islamists, notably Hamas and ISIS, are totally comparable to the Nazi ambition to conquer the world. Yet, actions of both Islamists and Nazis stem from an extreme ideology and a perverted worldview. Islamist ambitions are a clear and present danger to democratic societies. The U.S. must play a constructive role in the struggle to bring about a tranquil and just world order.