Obama’s foreign policy ‘stuff’

The President’s West Point address on national security last week brought mostly skeptical responses. Typical was the New York Times comment that “after five and a half years and dozens of speeches … the trail of Mr. Obama’s pronouncements has grown muddier.”

The President’s decisions may have been inconsistent at times—surging troops in Afghanistan one year only to remove them a couple years later, preparing to bomb Syria one day and negotiating with the regime the next—but through the twists and turns a number of valuable principles have emerged.

Most important is the President’s opposition to major wars of intervention. He won election in 2008 on a vow to remove U.S. troops from Iraq and fulfilled that pledge in 2011. He has now committed to withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Ending these wars is a major historic achievement. It’s also a policy widely supported by the American people. Opinion surveys show broad bipartisan support for staying out foreign conflicts.

Some analysts criticize this “minimalist foreign policy.”  The President has indeed been cautious about involvement in Syria and other crises. He recognizes, rightly I believe, that military intervention can backfire and have unintended consequences. Unlike some of his critics, he understands the limitations of American power and is more willing to work with allies.

White House aides have distilled the President’s foreign policy to the phrase “don’t do stupid stuff.” It’s not exactly an elegant expression, but it well describes what has been a major challenge of Obama’s presidency: trying to undo the major foreign policy blunders of the Bush administration.

Obama’s theme is similar to the “do no harm” principle that many in the development assistance community have adopted, based on the classic work of Mary Anderson. It’s a wise philosophy, whether applied to development assistance or military intervention. Avoid making matters worse. International assistance too often benefits corrupt elites rather than people in need. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan produced more insurgency and terrorism, not less.

The President has made progress in ending major wars, but he still believes military force is a viable means of countering terrorism. He has fewer boots on the ground but has increased the number of drone strikes, Special Forces raids, CIA operations, and attacks by U.S.-trained local troops. The policy is ‘minimalist’ in the number of U.S. casualties and the scale of force per episode, but the resort to military means is more frequent.

The limited use of force is no more effective against terrorism than large-scale invasions. The military’s own counter-insurgency manual and the statements of top military commanders acknowledge that military means alone are not sufficient to defeat terrorism.

Finding effective solutions to the continuing threat of violent extremism will require a redirection of American foreign policy far more substantial than what Obama has attempted, a process that will take many years. In the meantime, an approach of avoiding ‘stupid stuff’ may be the best we can hope for, and could provide time for building the public understanding and support necessary for a more substantial turn toward peace.

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