Paul Pillar

The President Strikes a Nerve

President Obama has gotten much attention from a single extended response he gave to a question about his foreign policy from Ed Henry of Fox News in a press conference last week in Manila. The apparently strongly felt need, on the part of some of the president's hardline critics, to strike back at his remarks and to try to discredit them indicates that he spoke some embarrassing truths. Garden-variety disagreement with the substance of the president's policies and what he has said to support them would never have stimulated this kind of response.

The president made several perceptive observations about the less productive aspects of current discourse in Washington about Ukraine, Syria, and other difficult issues, but if there was a single “ouch” line that made the critics most uncomfortable it may have been Mr. Obama's comment 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.” It must be painful for Mr. Obama's opponents to be reminded how right he was about this issue while so many others—Democrats as well as Republicans—were wrong.

Some of the rest of us who have commented repeatedly on the lessons of that war could be accused (although the president, who is not a serial gloater on the subject, cannot) of playing our own note over and over again. It ought to be played—because the Iraq War was the biggest and costliest U.S. endeavor ever in the Middle East, because we continue to suffer from the domestic as well as the regional consequences of that misadventure, because what was bad about that war has parallels in what could easily happen with some current issues if they are not properly handled, and because it is astounding that the biggest promoters of the Iraq War somehow still seem to have an audience even though they have been proven to be guilty of gross malpractice as policy analysts.

If there is any ground for criticizing what the president said at the press conference in Manila, it is that he seemed implicitly to accept some of the simplistic frames of reference that characterize not only what his critics are saying but more general discussion in the United States of foreign policy. There is the tendency in that discussion, for example, to register anything good or bad happening in the world as a success or failure of the incumbent U.S. president. Thus Mr. Obama pointed to how security relations between the United States and the Philippines are far better today than they were a decade ago, without mentioning that some of the reasons for that really don't have much to do with his own foreign policy. There also is the tendency, amid the slapping on of sanctions against adversaries hither and yon, to treat someone else's pain or isolation as if it were an end in itself. Thus Mr. Obama stated that “Russia has never been more isolated,” without quickly pointing out that any isolation of Russia is only a means to try to induce certain changes in Russian behavior. But the president was, after all, only giving an impromptu response to criticism, and he did not make any specific claims about the meaning and significance of Filipino cooperation or Russian isolation.

If subsequent commentary by the critics were to be believed, the main takeaway from the president's remarks was that he was accusing his political opponents of being warmongers. But the president explicitly acknowledged, in referring to debates over Syria and Ukraine, that the opponents he has in mind have disavowed wanting to send U.S. troops into such conflicts. Mr. Obama's main point was instead that after making such disavowals, the critics either (1) fail to spell out what other action they have in mind, beyond what the administration already is doing; or (2) to the extent they do mention an alternative, fail to assess carefully the likely consequences both good and bad, and instead just make unsupported assertions that acting more boldly or aggressively will somehow help to solve the problem at hand.

The president's point is valid. In fact, it applies as well to a lot of criticism of the foreign policies of other U.S. presidents. It is a reflection of the luxury of non-incumbency. Only incumbent policy-makers have to come up with a course of action that, despite all the downsides, is most likely to help solve problems. Non-incumbent critics can sit back and carp about problems that are still unsolved, whether or not solution is really within the capability of the United States.