Recent flaps highlight Obama’s lack of a strategic foreign policy vision

Cliff Smith Attorney
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Secretary of State John Kerry recently went to Moscow to discuss the Syrian civil war. The former Democratic presidential nominee’s aim was to dissuade Vladimir Putin from sending arms to the murderous Assad regime. For his troubles, Kerry was kept waiting for over three hours, barely listened to, and then ignored. The Russians, it seems, had increased their military aid to Bashar al-Assad just as Kerry was traveling halfway around the world to ask them to stop propping up the Syrian dictator.

This would be embarrassing for a foreign minister from a banana republic, let alone the chief foreign policy officer of the United States. The Assad regime is almost universally despised, its true friends limited to the mullahs in Iran, who use it as a tool to attack Israel. While there are historic ties between the Russian government and Assad, Russia has little strategic reason to support him other than to humiliate and weaken America. The fact that the Obama administration is flailing on the Syria issue is revealing.

Obama achieved a remarkable feat in 2012 when he bested his GOP opponent on national security and foreign affairs. Until recently, this would have been unthinkable.

From 1968 until 2008, foreign policy was one of the Republican Party’s greatest strengths. George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 largely because of his foreign policy. Clinton was only elected in 1992 because, with the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign policy wasn’t a major issue in the campaign. But the Iraq War cost Republicans credibility on foreign policy issues, and the Obama team successfully convinced America that it was tough and smart on national security through a series of tactical victories, from the Osama bin Laden raid to the successful withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Those tactical victories, however, masked the Obama administration’s lack of a strategic foreign policy vision. It’s not clear what the administration’s priorities are — what it wants from Russia, China, etc. Does it want peace? Democracy? Economic growth? Stability? The administration won’t give a straightforward answer.

Last week, the president made Samantha Powers his new U.N. ambassador. Powers is known for her work against genocide — which is laudable, but not a real strategy. She viciously attacked the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq, but has called for troops to occupy Israel to settle the Palestinian issue. She was one of the Obama administration’s biggest cheerleaders in Libya and has called for aggressive action in Syria, but was essentially silent during Iran’s Green Revolution. It’s hard to discern a coherent foreign policy from her record.

The NSA scandal is the latest example of the administration’s confused approach to national security issues. On May 23, the president gave a speech implying that the War on Terror is over, or at least ought to be. But now we’re learning that the administration is collecting our phone records and taking other extraordinary steps to thwart terrorist attacks. Is the War on Terror over or isn’t it?

The administration’s defenders say it takes a “flexible” and “pragmatic” approach to foreign policy issues — that it seeks the best possible outcome in various circumstances. But this is nonsense. Pragmatism is something you apply in pursuit of goals, not something you can substitute for goals. Putin knows this, as do the leaders of China, Iran and other countries. Power abhors a vacuum. If America doesn’t use its power, others will exercise their powers instead.

With his domestic agenda largely stalled, President Obama will be tempted to turn his attention abroad. But until he develops a coherent foreign policy, he should be prepared for a lot more snubs from world leaders.

Cliff Smith, a native of Seattle, has worked on Capitol Hill and in various other political and policy-focused capacities. He holds an MPP with a focus on international relations from Pepperdine University and a JD with a focus on international law from The Catholic University of America.