The Obama Defense

What He Gets Right -- and Wrong -- About Foreign Policy

U.S. President Obama -- increasingly accused of having a listless foreign policy that, in the eyes of some, made Russian President Vladimir Putin believe he could get away with stealing Crimea -- is doing much better on the world stage than his critics allow. But he does still have to address one significant problem. If he does not, he will likely find himself increasingly harangued over a supposed decline in American influence and power on his watch. His West Point speech on May 28 will probably fix some of the problem, but not all of it.

During his speech, Obama argued that some of the most frequent allegations about his foreign policy are flat wrong and underscored his restraint in the deployment of American power. As he put it the other day, it’s a lot easier to start wars than to end them. Obama’s explanation of how much it pains him to have American troops die under his command was heartfelt and moving. And his general argument that force, especially the unilateral use of force, cannot be the go-to method of solving foreign policy problems was correct as well. Still, the president’s speech will hardly silence the debates about specific policies, a number of which are overheated.

To come to his (partial) defense on a few policies: On Benghazi, the United States certainly made mistakes. Four Americans were tragically killed, and it was no one's finest hour. But charges that the Obama administration launched a major conspiracy to cover up what had really happened simply fail to hold water. And beyond the human tragedy, the strategic consequences for the United States of that terrible night in Libya in September of 2012 were small.

On Ukraine, this year Russia invaded Crimea, a move not unlike how Putin led the attack against Georgia when George W. Bush was president. It's pretty hard to blame either Bush or Obama for such old-fashioned Russian aggression, especially since neither Georgia nor Ukraine is part of the NATO alliance, whose members the United States is sworn to defend. And Obama's approach to date on Ukraine -- make Putin pay a modest but real price for what he has done, while signaling that the United States and its allies would greatly increase the economic costs of any further aggression -- strikes a good balance. At present, it even seems to be working, discouraging Putin from far more dangerous aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis