Nothing suggests failure like a president who spends a foreign trip defending his foreign policy. Yet there was President Barack Obama at the end of his Asia trip in Manila last week, struggling to offer a nuanced view of his handling of global affairs. American interests have taken a beating recently in Syria, Egypt, Israel, Ukraine and elsewhere. But the carping from Obama's conservative critics masks a central difference between the foreign policy of this president and the last one — and for that matter, the Republicans who ran against him for the White House. While the path has been bumpy and occasionally tentative, Obama has avoided making the big strategic mistakes that are so costly in both human and financial sacrifices and that can scar entire generations.
Republicans have hounded Obama for refusing to intervene more directly in Syria's civil war and for failing to more aggressively confront Russia for its incursion into Ukraine. The criticisms have come against a backdrop of other criticisms about the effectiveness of the president's foreign policy, from the collapse of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians to the latest crackdown on the prodemocracy movement in Egypt by the military-led government that ousted the first popularly elected president, Mohammed Morsi. The refrain argues that if Obama was more forceful in threatening U.S. military action the bad actors and outcomes would disappear.
That is an unrealistic view of global politics and of America's military capabilities. It is unreasonable to expect the United States to intervene militarily in Ukraine. Working with Europe to tighten sanctions is a slower and less dramatic but more effective way to punish Moscow for annexing Crimea. And beyond raising the stalemate to a higher risk of violence, arming Syria's opposition with advanced weapons would accomplish little beyond increasing the arms pipeline to militant Islamist groups.
Obama has triggered much of the criticism by sending mixed messages about his resolve to strike Syria militarily, the extent that Ukraine should push back against Russia and American expectations of Egypt in the run-up to new elections. That lack of clarity has tangible costs. Some European allies are looking to soften the Russian sanctions because they fear their own economies would be harmed. Others wonder whether the administration will backtrack on America's security guarantees across the globe.
But Obama's mixed record also is the result of conflicting domestic agendas abroad and the reactive nature of crisis management. While he was unable on his Asia trip to seal the deal on a trade pact with Japan, Obama did secure a new defense agreement with the Philippines. Across a wider front, the United States and Iran are making progress over resolving threats from Iran's nuclear program. And the deal negotiated between the United States and Russia has already removed 90 percent of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, a peaceful breakthrough many thought implausible only months ago.
Obama inherited a mess in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he wound down those two wars and channeled the American public's war fatigue into a diplomacy-first approach. He should be more consistent in pursuing America's policy goals abroad, and clearer about sorts of situations constitute a threat to the national security interest. But the administration's foreign policy is one built on many tiny steps forward rather than dramatic military intervention, and as messy and frustrating as that can be it is the more responsible approach.