What Foreign Policy?

Obama’s speech last week was politically smart. But it was incredibly vague on foreign policy—which bodes ill for America.

President Obama delivered last night some of the most elegant political taunts in recent American history, demonstrating discipline in modulating his rebukes to the Republicans in the chamber. Without cracking a smile, the president said that he did not want to create debts too great for future generations to bear-wryly borrowing the GOP's main talking point. When the Republicans gave Obama a cheering, back-at-you response, the president said, "Yeah, I totally agree," and then pointed to the deficit and crisis the country has inherited, obliquely suggesting that the lawmakers across the aisle have belatedly found their fiscal austerity.

Obama articulated his priorities, such as the development of energy efficiency and the improvement of the education system, in patriotic tones-a politically effective approach. Obama also restored the vision of the Founding Fathers by arguing that it was the American example that was a great and inspiring force across the globe-rather than American force of arms. He added that upholding U.S. values makes the country stronger, rather than weaker, and that America could now unequivocally say that it does not torture-a jab at the former vice president.

The Republicans in the chamber looked chastened, many of them keeping downcast eyes when the camera panned to them. Indeed, many Republicans, along with their Democratic enablers, have much to be chastened about. And Obama was effective in highlighting the folly of the past eight years.

Still, on the most important element of his foreign policy, his plan for Afghanistan, the president told the country to stay tuned. Indeed, he has decided upon a troop increase of seventeen thousand before announcing a comprehensive strategy for the country or those new troops. While Obama has effectively articulated why Afghanistan is important, he has not given an inkling of why military forces could succeed where they are currently failing.

While George W. Bush can be derided for pursuing a foreign policy that might be fairly summarized in two words: resolve and freedom (at least in name), Obama is running the risk of pursuing a policy that might ultimately be described in a turn of phrase-Iraq war, bad; Afghan war, good.

Similar to the situation in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has been a direct cause of regional consequences that are far more central to U.S. interests than Afghanistan itself will ever be. Areas of nuclear-armed Pakistan have become severely radicalized and destabilized. The authority of the Pakistani government (both the current and previous) has been so weakened by the war on its border that it has had to reach a truce with Islamic radicals, this time in the Swat valley. The Obama administration has responded with little more than resignation.

"They don't really have a choice," Lawrence Korb, a key advisor to Obama during the campaign, said in an interview of the Pakistani government. "Pakistan doesn't really have the wherewithal to counter the militants" in that area, he added, and has therefore resorted to a truce to "buy time."

There is almost a sense of inevitability in discussing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan with Korb (who supports the increase of troops) and other experts, who stress America's responsibility to Afghanistan more than the reasons why America can now be militarily successful there. It remains unclear why America can now cautiously withdraw from Iraq, but has an imperative in Afghanistan. Indeed, the United States has faced such supposed imperatives in the past, like Vietnam.

Bush was willing to counter much of the foreign-policy consensus on Iraq. Obama may now be willing to do the same, to America's-and his own-peril. Indeed, much of the foreign policy community was unfairly maligned in wake of the troubles in Iraq. While it is true that much of the media was delinquent in its duty to examine the rationale or prospects of success for the war in Iraq, many distinguished foreign-policy experts were raising strident notes of caution, accurately predicting many difficulties U.S. forces would face. The experts were given insufficient airtime and space to voice their concerns, but they did make their opinions known in the alternative media and, at times, in the op-ed pages of some papers of record.

It seems difficult to believe that for all of Obama's obvious talent, intelligence and political dexterity, he could get Afghanistan terribly wrong. But if the president does not corroborate a plan for Afghanistan, this remains the most likely presumption. If that proves to be the case, the legacy-centric president will be immortalized as such.

 

Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.