Former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis brought an old Greek saying into the political lexicon: "The fish rots from the head down."
It's the perfect metaphor for what passes for foreign policy in the Obama administration.
Facing increasing criticism of his handling of foreign relations, President Obama on Monday knocked down an entire infield's worth of straw men in a 949-word baseball-themed defense at a news conference in Manila, the last stop on a weeklong Asia trip. It's a good primer for the uninitiated on exactly how far out of touch the commander-in-chief is with the world scene:
Well, Ed, I doubt that I’m going to have time to lay out my entire foreign policy doctrine. And there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I’m not sure you ran them.
Here’s I think the general takeaway from this trip. Our alliances in the Asia Pacific have never been stronger; I can say that unequivocally. Our relationship with ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia have never been stronger. I don’t think that’s subject to dispute. As recently as a decade ago, there were great tensions between us and Malaysia, for example. And I think you just witnessed the incredible warmth and strength of the relationship between those two countries.
We’re here in the Philippines signing a defense agreement. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago there was enormous tensions around our defense relationship with the Philippines. And so it’s hard to square whatever it is that the critics are saying with facts on the ground, events on the ground here in the Asia Pacific region. Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force. And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?
My job as Commander-in-Chief is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely. And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.
So if you look at Syria, for example, our interest is in helping the Syrian people, but nobody suggests that us being involved in a land war in Syria would necessarily accomplish this goal. And I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, no, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops. Well, what do you mean? Well, you should be assisting the opposition -- well, we’re assisting the opposition. What else do you mean? Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria. Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike. So what else are you talking about? And at that point it kind of trails off.
In Ukraine, what we’ve done is mobilize the international community. Russia has never been more isolated. A country that used to be clearly in its orbit now is looking much more towards Europe and the West, because they’ve seen that the arrangements that have existed for the last 20 years weren’t working for them. And Russia is having to engage in activities that have been rejected uniformly around the world. And we’ve been able to mobilize the international community to not only put diplomatic pressure on Russia, but also we’ve been able to organize European countries who many were skeptical would do anything to work with us in applying sanctions to Russia. Well, what else should we be doing? Well, we shouldn’t be putting troops in, the critics will say. That’s not what we mean. Well, okay, what are you saying? Well, we should be arming the Ukrainians more. Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?
The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again. Why? I don’t know. But my job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it. There are going to be times where there are disasters and difficulties and challenges all around the world, and not all of those are going to be immediately solvable by us.
But we can continue to speak out clearly about what we believe. Where we can make a difference using all the tools we’ve got in the toolkit, well, we should do so. And if there are occasions where targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them. We don't do them because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think it would look strong. That's not how we make foreign policy. And if you look at the results of what we've done over the last five years, it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger, and in the Asia Pacific region, just to take one example, we are much better positioned to work with the peoples here on a whole range of issues of mutual interest.
And that may not always be sexy. 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.
So Obama prefers to hit line drives rather than swing for the fences, and claims that's helped him avoid errors. But that just isn't true. Let's take those errors point-by-point:
• The Philippines: The bilateral agreement signed Sunday can be summed up in one phrase: fear of China. That's what's driving Manila's reversal on hosting U.S. forces, along with the welcoming attitude by other nations around the South China Sea, most notably Vietnam. Obama acts as if his administration has caused the reduction in what he calls "enormous tensions," but his military budget cuts and weak response to aggression by rogue states are helping cause heightened anxiety across the Pacific, not reduce it. Also, U.S. special operations forces have been at work in the Philippines since the beginning of 2002, helping Filipino troops fight Islamist terrorists. The Pentagon calls the mission "Operation Enduring Freedom." If that sounds familiar, it should -- it's the same name used for operations in Afghanistan.
• Deploying military force as a last resort: One word: Libya. Obama deployed military force as a first resort, not a last, and did so without seeking congressional approval, as George W. Bush did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the president's critics, rather than being eager to increase the use of force by the U.S., say that was a military adventure too far -- and their position has been bolstered not only by the assassination in Benghazi of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012, but also the general chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya.
• Ukraine/Russia: Obama has misread Russia from the moment former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit the "reset" button (which actually was labeled "overcharge" in Russian). When he dismissed Russia (which dominates the world's largest land mass) as a "regional power" in March, he ignored the many ways in which his own administration has put U.S. policy at Moscow's mercy -- needing Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. spy satellites, for example. And Russia is by no means isolated: President Vladimir Putin is still reaping the rewards of courting U.S. adversaries such as Venezuela and Iran while Washington slept, and his influence in the Middle East has grown amid Obama's missteps. One of Obama's signature goals, nuclear nonproliferation, depends on Russian cooperation. Meanwhile, the Russians are openly mocking the president's sanctions and the State Department's pathetic attempts at social media diplomacy on Ukraine have drawn worldwide derision.
• "Our alliances are stronger:" It's not hard to find an example of a country where that isn't true: Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia come to mind. Obama sold out the British with his neutral position on the Falkland Islands, and scored a double play against Israel and Saudi Arabia with the interim nuclear deal with Iran. Maybe he's just talking about the alliances he really cares about -- but then there's the whole question of why he had to travel to Asia in the first place: to reassure jittery allies in the region like Japan that he really will defend them.