Obama Says His Foreign Policy Isn’t Sexy, But It’s Working

Ukraine is by no means the only lens through which the Obama administration’s foreign policy tactics should be analyzed. Both the White House’s use of drone strikes against al Qaeda and its response to the ongoing civil war in Syria are equally telling. But the continued escalation of the Ukrainian conflict does present an opportunity to assess the current administration’s competence and to analyze how it perceives the country’s role in the unfolding of global events.

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President Barack Obama has been called the weakest of the American post-World War II presidents by his critics. “Even the in-over-his-head Jimmy Carter was more of a factor in foreign affairs than Barack Obama,” wrote Forbes Editor-in-Chief Steve Forbes in his analysis of the president and his second-place ranking in the publication’s compilation of the world’s most powerful people.

Only Vladimir Putin finished above Obama. In Cold War-era America, news that a Russian leader had edged out his American counterpart would have caused more than a few ripples. Since the end of the Cold War, at least, the title of “most powerful person in the world” has generally been attached to the president of the United States. Of course, the rankings are entirely subjective, but the fact that Putin out-positioned Obama says a good deal about how the two leaders are perceived by their constituents and by the international community, as well as about how they use their power.

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If his approval rating is any indication, Americans increasingly disapprove of how Obama handles both domestic and foreign problems. While his job approval rating ticked up ever so slightly in the past three months, it still remains low by historical standards. A great deal of the country’s displeasure with the president is related to the lingering economic malaise.

Gallup data show that less than half of Americans, 42 percent, are confident that Obama is “doing or recommending the right thing for the economy.” And now, his foreign policy is also a growing concern. Americans once saw the president’s stance on global issues as a political asset, and rated him highly on foreign policy issues. However, a late-March poll conducted by the Associated Press registered his lowest level of public support on foreign policy, with just 40 percent of Americans approving of his job performance in the area.

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Republicans have long characterized Obama as too weak in asserting American power abroad. Yet until recently, foreign policy has not hurt his second-term approval ratings, with Americans about as likely to endorse his approach as to disapprove. Political analysts have theorized that, by and large, Obama has chosen to be weak internationally, and until now, that stance has been popular.

It can be argued, like Forbes’s editor-in-chief did, that Obama is deliberately attempting to reduce the country’s global footprint because he “believes the U.S. has been a malignant force in the world,” a mindset has been called the Obama doctrine. Is also equally true that after fighting two deeply unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and slogging through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama expressed the view of millions of Americans when he said in 2011 that it was “time to focus on nation building here at home.”

But as recent Associated Press and Pew Research Center survey results suggest, Americans are once again turning an eye to the president’s foreign policy. Events in the past several weeks have provided some evidence from which to analyze why Obama’s international relations are prompting criticism like they never did before.

From survey data, it appears that the evolving situation in eastern Europe has played a role in redefining how Americans see Barack Obama as a leader, focusing attention on the question of the country’s international role. The AP poll found that 57 percent of the public dislike how the president has handled the situation in Ukraine, and 54 percent disapprove of how he has interacted with Russia. Nearly half of the poll’s respondents said they would support imposing tougher sanctions if Russia pushes deeper into Ukraine or any other country, an indication that isolationism is vastly unappealing.

So far, economic sanctions have done little to dissuade Russian and pro-Russian provocations in and around the vicinity of Ukraine. Plus, U.S. officials have said that there is no evidence that Russian leadership intends to comply with the terms of an agreement reached in Geneva, which stipulated that all illegal groups would be disarmed and withdrawn from all the government buildings and public spaces that have been occupied over the course of the crisis.

As of Monday, pro-Russian separatists have not scaled back aggression. They took a group of military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hostage on Friday and captured three Ukrainian intelligence officers on Sunday, according to numerous reports.

In response, the United States and the European Union imposed additional sanctions. U.S. measures target seven Russian officials and 17 companies that the Obama administration says are linked to Putin’s inner circle. The federal government will also restrict licenses for U.S. exports to Russia of high-technology products that could contribute to the country’s military capabilities. The United States has placed sanctions on a total of 45 individuals and 19 companies.

Meanwhile, the EU has agreed to sanction an additional 15 Russian and Ukrainian citizens. “The goal here is not to go after Mr. Putin personally,” Obama said at Monday news conference in Manila, speaking just before the new sanctions were announced. “The goal is to change his calculus.” But despite four rounds of sanctions, the crisis has gained momentum.

In months that separated the placement of sanctions on Russia and the repression of protests by then-Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych in November, it has become apparent that the crisis in Ukraine is far from a local conflict. Simply put, the spark to the crisis was provided by Yanukovych’s decision to form closer ties with Russia — instead of the EU – to secure much-needed economic aid, meaning both eastern and western European powers are intimately involved. These geographic orientations have become the lens through which the conflict is explained by Russia, pro-Russian separatists, and the current Ukrainian leadership. That reality has complicated the role of the United States.

The situation in Ukraine — which has been muddled by the confusion, uncertainty, and distortion of information practiced by both sides — has not only provided an opportunity for Obama’s critics to question his leadership capabilities, but has refocused the national debate on the degree to which the United States should become involved in international conflicts.

For much of his presidency, Obama has exercised caution about foreign entanglements, which in the past decade have have cost the United States greatly in lost lives, morale, and taxpayer dollars. That approach is sensible, and therefore appeals to Americans across a political spectrum. Proponents of anti-interventionism hold that the United States should minimize its involvement in foreign affairs, except when national security is unambiguously at risk.

According to this philosophy, the country should never use non-defensive military force. Rather, its power to influence world affairs should be employed to fight for causes such as human rights and democracy. Left-leaning political analysts and voters alike deplore what they see as the country’s imperialist tendencies, while libertarians wary of government power and foreign intervention, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, also argue against hawkish policies.

One respondent to the Associated Press survey — Richard Johnson, a politically independent retiree from Washington — argued that Russian incursion into Ukraine does not involve the United States. “They’re protesting in both directions, right?” Johnson told the news service, referring to the mixed nature of public sentiment. “So I just feel like we’ve got enough problems here at home, why are we looking for more trouble?”  But American opinion runs the gamut.

“We’re supposed to be a country that helps smaller countries in need,” said Christopher Ashby, a 29-year-old Republican from North Carolina. “Ukraine at this time is definitely in need.” But while Johnson believes the president is trying to do what he believes is best, Ashby said: “When I look at Obama, I see my 5-year-old daughter looking at something that just happened and saying ‘What do I do?’” Both these assessments are critical of Obama, but Ashby leans toward more forceful American foreign policy tactics and sees the president as indecisive, rather than cautious.

The problem with the anecdotal evidence from the AP survey is that the data present a divided picture of the American public on two fronts, both in respect to the president’s leadership abilities and on whether the United States should pursue a more active role. This means that it survey data cannot piece together whether Americans are dissatisfied because of the president’s own leadership failings or because they are looking for a stronger stance of foreign policy issues. Judging from Obama’s overall approval rating and the public’s opinion on Ukraine, it is likely a combination of both.

The absence of transparent, agreed-upon facts has created what New York Times columnist Keith A. Darden has referred to as a “breeding ground for suspicion and manipulative diplomatic games on the margins of the truth that may yet carry the region to war.”

He uses the armed “green men” who seized towns in eastern Ukraine as an example. While the U.S. has said Russian culpability is beyond “a shadow of a doubt” thanks to the circulation of photos feature those men, the Kremlin has issued categorical denials. And the Ukrainian government’s photo evidence that points to the involvement of Russian special forces has been tainted by apparent errors of location and identification.

Meanwhile, the president continues to attract high-profile criticism for how he handles foreign policy issues. Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens has warned that the United States “remains the only power that matters everywhere, but Washington no longer thinks that everywhere matters.” As the conflict in Syria continues to take a massive toll on human life and the Ukrainian situation escalates, many U.S. lawmakers have echoed his assessment. Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee have publicly called for Obama to become more involved, expressing concern that perceptions of American weakness are growing.

In Asia, where territorial disputes with China and the belligerence of North Korea are pressing issues, U.S. allies remain concerned over Washington’s lack of action in Syria. Throughout his tour of the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, and Malaysia, Obama has been on the defensive. Citing his visit to the region, Obama claimed that the United States’ ties with allies are now stronger than when he took office, and that the administration has been focusing on not rushing to judgement, thereby “avoiding errors.”

That thinking will keep U.S. troops “in reserve for when we absolutely need them,” he said, adding that critics who argue the United States is not using enough force “haven’t learned the lesson of the last decade,” during which the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took a toll on U.S. forces and resources.

That may not always be sexy,” Obama said Monday of his administration’s focus on engagement and unity among allies. “That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

For Republicans, Obama’s inaction is not seen as the result of a desire for caution and a more tempered philosophy. Rather, lawmakers like McCain, Corker, and Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, say the president is weak and indecisive. Last week on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Corker said: “I think the [Obama] administration is basically saying to Russia, ‘Look, don’t do anything overt. Don’t come across the border with 40,000 troops. Don’t embarrass us in that way. But you can continue to undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine by doing the things that you’ve done.’”

But Obama has framed recent events in both regions as moderate success, given the difficulties both crises present. Regarding Syria, the president considers the fact that nearly 92 percent of the country’s chemical weapons have been removed a sign that U.S. policy has succeeded. In Ukraine, the president pointed to the fact that the U.S. has led an international coalition in isolating Russia as a positive sign, as well.

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