Say, Why Is Obama’s Foreign “Policy” So Darned Unpopular?
The NY Times’ Ross Douthat is quite vexed that Obama’s foreign “policy” is so unpopular in polls. First, we have to consider why I’ve put “policy” in quotation marks. Well, he has to actually have a policy platform. There is none. He and his team are essentially winging it, living in the now. There’s no strategic thinking, no planning. He’s tended to annoy our allies. He has no real international “friendships”. No real engagement. Well, except in drone strikes. He likes doing that (and, in all seriousness, I like that he drone strikes the heck out of jihadis).
Writing in the Washington Post this week,: Robert Kagan highlights: what he calls the “paradox” of the current president’s approach to world affairs – namely, that even though Obama has been allegedly giving a war-weary public “the foreign policy they want” (by pulling out of Iraq, opting for non-intervention in Syria, etc.), his foreign policy ratings are currently terrible. Kagan argues, credibly, that these numbers are actually a judgment on the president’s national security stewardship, and not just an extension of public disillusionment with his domestic policy. Then, somewhat less credibly, he proffers this interpretation of the swoon: (snip to part of the excerpt of Kagan’s piece)
… To follow a leader to triumph inspires loyalty, gratitude and affection. Following a leader in retreat inspires no such emotions.
Douthat then excerpts Daniel Larison, who writes that Obama hasn’t given the public the non-interventionist policy he proclaimed. Douthat goes on to write
Let me suggest a third possibility. If you actually look at the trajectory of the president’s foreign policy approval ratings: last year, you’ll see two notable nosedives: One last June, coinciding with the Snowden affair, which took him from favorable into unfavorable territory, and then another when he was contemplating strikes against Syria, when his numbers went from single-digit to double-digit negatives. (They subsequently recovered slightly, but have dipped anew with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.) The ideological valence of both debates was complicated: The Snowden defection highlighted cases where Obama had taken (or the intelligence bureaucracy had taken, with his blessing) what’s generally seen as a “hawkish” line on national security, while the Syria debate involved a Congressional backlash against a hawkish position that the president then found a way to tiptoe away from himself.
But rather than trying to read the public’s response in ideological terms, maybe it’s more reasonable to look at what the two stories had in common: They both made the White House look incompetent.
Douthat thinks that Obama’s first term was pure awesomeness, but you stupid people rating Obama are stupid
And from the vantage point of the typical voter, it’s the outcomes, not the strategy, that define the major difference between Obama’s first and second terms: The first seemed to produce decent results (Bin Laden killed, Al Qaeda harried, Qaddafi toppled, the Arab Spring in its “people power” phase, the unpopular occupation of Iraq wound down without an immediate disaster for the U.S.), while the second has featured more obvious fumbles by the administration and more crises (Syria, Ukraine, the bloody aftermath in Libya, the post-revolutionary crackdowns in Egypt) where its approach has not reaped ideal results.
We learned that Obama had to be pushed kicking and screaming into taking Osama out. Al Qaeda may have been harried, but they were not on the run (though, awesomely, many were the recipients of drone strikes). He attacked Libya to protect British and French oil imports, and had zero plan for the after action, resulting in the eastern part of the country being under control of hardcore Islamists, and the country being virtually a failed state. Interesting that Ross doesn’t mention Benghazi. Obama mostly ignored, even willing ignored, the Arab Spring, until Egypt, which he made a big mess of. He even messed up the plan drawn up by the Bush Team for ending our engagement in Iraq, which Obama had been following. Are there any real wins for foreign policy during the first term? Our allies sure don’t think so. But, you stupid Americans
But invoking public opinion to prove that his policy has erred in one direction or another seems like (mostly) a mistake: Those numbers reflect casual judgments on outcomes, not informed judgments on strategy, and should be treated mostly just as examples of the near-inevitable orphaning of difficulty, setback and defeat.
Funny, I don’t remember these same judgments while Bush was president. Look, nothing is going to be perfect, mistakes are made, things go wrong. The plan for securing Iraq once the initial military phase was concluded was a big can of idiocy. But, at least there was a plan. Bush spent lots of time engaging with our allies, building relationships. Obama? Not so much. And there are no real plans. It’s the difference between the NFL and a bunch of 10 year olds with a Nerf football told to go out and play.
Obama’s foreign policy is unpopular because it’s inconsistent and inept, and significantly degrades America’s standing.
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