Critics have complained that President Obama likes to talk about the foreign policy challenges he faces, and about how difficult they are, more than he likes doing something about them. But in at least one important respect, talking by a president is better than nothing – because on occasions like Friday’s press conference, Mr. Obama keeps making clear just how thoroughly divorced his administration’s foreign policy agenda remains from a sensible, realistic definition of U.S. national interests. During that appearance, moreover, he again unwittingly demonstrated the perils of basing American actions on the idea that the nation has international responsibilities – the subject of July 22’s post.
In the president’s words on Friday, “the fact of the matter is, is that in all these crises that have been mentioned, there may be some tangential risks to the United States. In some cases, as in Iraq and ISIS, those are dangers that have to be addressed right now, and we have to take them very seriously. But for the most part, these are not — the rockets aren’t being fired into the United States. The reason we are concerned is because we recognize we’ve got some special responsibilities.”
Mr. Obama’s views on America’s stakes in most of the conflicts roiling the world today should have headlined press accounts of his news conference. For he stated unmistakably that neither the violence and suffering engulfing places like Ukraine and Gaza nor all the news coverage they have generated makes them matters that significantly affect Americans’ security, freedom, or prosperity.
The president’s claim regarding U.S. interests is a matter of legitimate debate of course. Ditto for the question of why Washington should act at all in cases with no major effects on the nation’s well-being. But at least these are debates that can, for the most part, reflect knowables and measurables. This Obama definition of U.S. interests also raises an important tactical question. As long as the president has decided that he’s going to involve the United States in resolving these crises, is it wise to admit tacitly to allies and adversaries alike that this involvement will never entail America running many risks or bearing many coats?
Unfortunately, no productive, rational debate is possible over the president’s belief – and it is no more than that – in America’s “special responsibilities” in these hotspots. For starters, why does the president believe the nation perceives these responsibilities? Every bit of polling data available shows exactly the opposite – that most of his countrymen want him to stay out. And if this is the case, what right does the chief executive have to incur any risks to U.S. security or spend any taxpayer dollars pursuing out his own personal concept of American obligations? Has any U.S. leader ever proclaimed this as part of his job definition?
And let’s say that Mr. Obama does have every right to commandeer national resources and conduct foreign policy thusly. Just where does his view of America’s responsibilities come from? What is it based on? Does it have any objective, concrete basis? Where in his own mind do these responsibilities begin and end? What is their relationship to U.S. interests – however he defines them? When do these responsibilities start to impinge on interests? What makes certain responsibilities “special.” Just how special are they?
Complicating matters much further: The president’s definition of U.S. interests themselves seems pretty muddled. Right after his implicit press conference acknowledgement that the Ukraine crisis doesn’t directly affect the United States, he told The Economist that “we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.”
But if these Russian challenges are only “regional,” and if history is indeed “on our side,” then why not wait Vladimir Putin’s government out? Why put up much of a fuss to begin with? And that nuclear weapons reference – where did that come from? Who would put them ”back in the discussion”? Certainly not Putin — who could take over Ukraine without them. Certainly not Europe’s nuclear powers, France and Britain – which had been inking new arms deals with Russia until the latest round of sanctions. Is the president suggesting that he would rattle the nuclear saber?
Here are two propositions that everyone in the U.S. foreign policy debate – including the president — should be able to agree on: First, whether the pursuit of foreign policy responsibilities deserves any importance, the pursuit and defense of interests deserves more importance. Second, before American leaders try to carry out its responsibilities, their definition of interests should be at least minimally coherent.