Viewpoints

Trudy Rubin: Foreign policy still a muddle

If anyone still needed proof of President Barack Obama’s reluctance to let foreign policy distract from his domestic agenda, he provided an excess in his State of the Union address.

In the brief foreign policy portion of the speech, Obama revisited his constant themes: He trumpeted the end of America’s combat missions abroad (last year he cited Iraq, this year Afghanistan) and the need for allies to shoulder the burdens of fighting terrorism – with our assistance.

“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy, when we leverage our power with coalition-building. … Around the globe, it is making a difference.”

If that were true, Americans could cheer. The country can’t afford and doesn’t want more involvement in endless overseas ground wars after 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Obama’s brand of “smarter leadership” abroad is failing for reasons that seem to elude him. This gave his foreign policy remarks a surreal quality, bearing little resemblance to facts on the ground.

One clue to the disconnect was apparent when the president said: “We stand united with people around the world who have been targeted by terrorists – from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.”

If that is so, why didn’t Obama or Vice President Biden join the 40 world leaders who marched in solidarity in Paris against the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store? The White House has admitted it should have sent a senior official to the march, and the excuses given for not doing so are limp. So what was the reason for this glaring absence?

Obama clearly failed to grasp that “smart” leadership required him or the veep to march alongside his allies in Paris. The failure to do so signaled a lack of interest in leading the coalition.

Perhaps Obama believed he had better things to do at home, but his absence made his strong statements of solidarity ring hollow. That same gap – between strong words and foreign policy leadership – permeated his State of the Union foreign policy remarks.

“We’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America,” he said. “We’ve learned some costly lessons over the last 13 years. Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who have now taken the lead.”

Of course, what Obama didn’t mention is that Afghan forces are likely to collapse in the face of the Taliban if we pull out all troops (or that, faced with an Islamic State advance, Iraqi forces collapsed after 10 years of U.S. training). Do the lessons from Iraq indicate that some U.S. forces must remain in Afghanistan to provide backbone, or that U.S. leadership is vital to encourage Afghans and Pakistanis to finally develop a common strategy to stabilize the region? The president didn’t say.

Nor did Obama lay out a broad strategy for combating the Islamic State. “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping advance,” he said. “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war … we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”

Yet despite these claims, the Islamic State is making territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria. America’s Arab allies are confused about U.S. goals, divided among themselves, and doing relatively little to roll back the terrorists.

The president repeated the claim that America is “supporting a moderate opposition in Syria” that can help in the fight. However, everyone knows this promised help is so limited and delayed that Syrian “moderates” will be wiped out long before it has any impact.

And notably, Obama dropped any reference to the need for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. How does he expect to galvanize Sunni Arab allies to keep fighting the Islamic State when they suspect he now accepts Assad’s remaining in power? The president didn’t say.

So yes, we are rightly avoiding another Mideast ground war. But without a clearer U.S. strategy, that coalition of allies won’t make much headway against the Islamic State. And if he has a broad plan, the president offered no clues.

Speaking of unclear strategy, Obama claimed that his sanctions policy has “isolated Russia” over its bullying of Ukraine, yet a new infusion of Russian troops just invaded as Putin continues to destabilize that country. Despite this, the White House is looking to Moscow for a solution to the Syrian conflict, although Putin firmly backs Assad. No wonder our NATO allies are confused.

And even on Iran, where Obama is deeply invested in the outcome and correct to ask Congress to hold off on tougher sanctions, his words rang hollow given the stalemate in negotiations.

The problem with Obama’s approach doesn’t lie with his aversion to war, or his call for “strong diplomacy” and “leveraging power” with coalitions. It lies with his unwillingness to put those precepts into action within an overarching framework and to exert the leadership to make those coalitions effective. His State of the Union address did little to dispel the belief that his heart is elsewhere.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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