Obama pivots to foreign policy, media not exactly impressed

Barack Obama travels to West Point today to provide another “reset” to his foreign policy, stung over criticism that American power has been in retreat and its policy drifting over the last five-plus years. CNN’s John King, Julianna Goldman, and Jackie Kucinich preview the pivot, and speculate whether Obama will address the VA scandal about which these “young cadets” might be worrying, in the long-term view:


Bloomberg also considers this a defensive move after an avalanche of criticism, especially over the last year:

The Hill also frames this as a defensive pivot:

The White House is mounting a concerted defense of President Obama’s foreign policy against criticism that he has weakened U.S. influence around the globe.

The full-court press hinges on a speech Obama will give Wednesday at West Point’s commencement, where aides say the commander in chief will argue that the U.S. can continue to exert meaningful influence through diplomacy and multilateralism.

The push appears motivated in part by the president’s personal frustration with hawkish critics of his foreign policy, who argue he has eroded American power and left a leadership vacuum filled by rivals such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The criticism has centered on Syria, where the administration has been unable to slow civilian deaths in a brutal civil war, and Ukraine, where the administration watched as Putin and Russia took over the region of Crimea.

It also encompasses an Asian pivot that critics say has yet to take hold. A deal last week in which Russia agreed to supply natural gas to China reinforced arguments that Obama is being outpaced by events.

Don’t expect this pivot to last long. Obama has not given foreign policy much attention until events forced it upon him, and even then hardly seemed enthusiastic about projecting leadership. Obama wants to focus on domestic policy in the run-up to the midterms, since Congressional elections don’t hinge on foreign policy. The longer Obama spends on foreign policy, the more defensive he looks, and the impact of his attempts to set narratives on inequality and the “war on women” grows weaker.


Speaking of weaker, National Journal’s Major Garrett laments the weak tone set by Obama’s announcements on Afghanistan — although in fairness, there doesn’t seem to be much Obama could do about it absent a popular surge in support for a more robust and long-term mission there:

“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” the president said, restating a truism embedded within Pentagon planning at least since the Korean War. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century—not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility.”


In fact, most wars involving the United States since World War II have ended vaguely, ingloriously, or semi-ceremonially. In the first instance, think Korea—it’s technically still a war because there was no peace treaty, only an armistice. In the second instance, think of the frantic U.S. pullout from Saigon. In the third, the end of the first Gulf War carried a surrender, but with it came flinching (in the eyes of neoconservative hawks), unfinished business defined by no-fly zones and a trade embargo.

It’s not that the Afghanistan war is ending differently. It’s that it’s ending the same way other recent wars have, with one big difference. This time the United States was attacked, the casualties were civilians, and the yearning for decisive victory was as clear as it’s been since Pearl Harbor. And yet there’s damn little that’s decisive in Afghanistan after all we’ve deployed, spent [see figure 1.27], and lost.


John Kerry made the media rounds this morning, attempting to bolster Obama’s pivot by running interference on the pre-speech analysis. Most of his remarks were mundane restatements of White House messaging, but this caught Chris Cuomo’s attention:

This comes from the man who launched his own career by attacking the conduct of the US military during the Vietnam War as something out of Genghis Khan. He joined up with anti-war organizers in their own “industry of oppositionists,” and even as late as the Iraq War managed to join in with fellow anti-war voices to criticize George W. Bush’s foreign policy. All of this certainly benefited Kerry, but now suddenly any criticism of foreign policy under his and Obama’s direction is just the product of an “industry of oppositionists”? That’s rank hypocrisy.

Update: “Oppositionists,” not “opportunists,” although at least the latter is an actual word.

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David Strom 1:20 PM | July 18, 2024