President Barack Obama hotly defended his foreign policy record Monday by claiming that the only alternatives to his policies are U.S. “military adventures.”
“Frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests,” he claimed at a press conference in Manila, early Monday morning.
Instead, “we can continue to speak out clearly about what we believe… [and] if there are occasions where targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them,” said Obama, who has always sought to sideline foreign policy issues in favor of risky domestic political priorities, such as Obamacare.
His cautious policy “may not always be sexy… [and] doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows,” he said.
“But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” he said.
Obama’s defense of his foreign policy record comes as China hints at trying to grab territory held by U.S. allies in the region, as Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons, as Palestinians walk away from peace talks with Israel, as Russia chews its way into Eastern Ukraine, and as al-Qaida-style Islamists expand their wars in the Middle East and Africa.
On April 26th, for example, David Ignatius, a foreign policy columnist, reported that “Iraq is slipping back into civil war, and Sheik Zaydan Aljabiri, one of the political leaders of the Sunni insurgent group known as the Tribal Revolutionaries, seems confident that his side is winning.”
Zaydan’s forces are Sunni Muslims, who are closely allied with the al-Qaida forces that were beaten by the United States before Obama withdrew U.S. forces in 2010. “We are three kilometers from Baghdad airport!” Zaydan told Ignatius.
A growing number of critics are calling for tougher policies that aim to deter or avoid wars.
For example, they’re calling for more economic and political pressure against Iran, major economic sanctions on Russia amid its slow-motion invasion of Ukraine, additional military aid to rebels in Syria, and for more cooperation with the Asian countries facing a newly aggressive China.
The critics also say Obama has not challenged the rising power of Islamist political movements in Turkey and Egypt, and has failed to even provide rhetorical support to pro-democracy protests in Iran during 2010 or in Venezuelan this year. The administration has also downplayed proliferating Islamic attacks on Christians in the Middle East and Africa, say Obama’s critics.
Obama did not mention his 2010 Libyan policy, which collapsed the Libyan government, and may have helped spread weapons and war into Algeria, the Central Africa Republic, Chad and Syria.
But Obama repeatedly complained about the criticism, and repeatedly suggested that the only possible alternatives to his foreign policy is warfare.
“Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force. And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?” he said at the press conference.
“For some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq [in 2003] haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again,” he said.
“Why? I don’t know,” he claimed.
But some of Obama’s policies are a concession to his critics. For example, his trip to Asia is widely seen as an late effort to reassure worried allies that the United States will back them in any military challenge with China. “We’re here in the Philippines signing a defense agreement… so it’s hard to square whatever it is that the critics are saying with facts on the ground… here in the Asia Pacific region,” Obama said.
But most of Obama’s foreign policy efforts seek to minimize the impact of foreign crises on his domestic agenda.
For example, even as Russian-allied proxy forces grab control of cities eastern Ukraine, Obama continued to defend his Ukrainian policy as the only option. “Russia has never been more isolated… what else should we be doing?,” he said.
“The critics will say… ‘We should be arming the Ukrainians more.‘ Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?” Obama said.
Obama defended his response to the bloody Syrian civil war, where he has begun to provide a modest level of military aid to some of the rebel groups who are not aligned with the expanding Islamic armies in the country.
“I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, no, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops. Well, what do you mean? Well, you should be assisting the opposition — well, we’re assisting the opposition,” he said.
Obama also cited his abortive threat in 2013 to launch airstrikes on Syrian chemical-weapons forces. Critics complain that “‘perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria.’ Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike,” Obama said. “So what else are you talking about? And at that point it kind of trails off,” he claimed, ignoring many calls for more military aid and for tougher sanctions on Syria’s Iranian ally.
Following Obama’s threat to strike Syria, the Iran-backed Syrian government gave up roughly 90 percent of the its nerve gas weapons, but is reportedly holding back around 7.5 percent, and also launching some chemical weapons attacks against the Islamic rebels.