Obama does himself no favors with his periodic slumbers, his indisciplines of conception and rhetoric. He and his aides take too much comfort in their sense of being misunderstood and stymied. Their mistakes are not few. John Kerry’s recent effort to forge a settlement with Israel and Palestine was heroic, if unsuccessful, but the Administration should have had a serious Plan B, laying out intermediate steps that would sustain negotiations; its failure to do so contributed to the disaster that followed.
Yet it is a mistake, as well, to dismiss caution as weakness, to react to the medieval executions and depredations of ISIS and the adventurism of Vladimir Putin by mocking the very idea of strategic calculation. In foreign policy, there are sins of commission (Vietnam, Iraq) and there are sins of omission (Bosnia, Rwanda). History may find Obama guilty of both, but he has never been incapable of using American leverage and power. Even as he was being mocked as feckless last week, he ordered an air strike in Somalia successfully targeting Ahmed Abdi Godane, the commander of the militant group al-Shabaab. Although American interests, tightly conceived, may not be much implicated in Ukraine, Obama has taken the lead in creating a Western bloc that has imposed intensifying sanctions against Putin’s regime. Putin would not be talking about a ceasefire otherwise. Last week, at the NATO summit, in Wales, Obama also assembled a coalition that would take on ISIS and provide a model for an international response to extremist groups.
This is not a foreign policy that offers the satisfactions of self-expression; it lacks the snarl and the swagger that Obama’s domestic rivals yearn for. But, halfway through this President’s second term, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have, at last, a realistic chance for success. Russia’s recent aggressions in eastern Ukraine may end in an uneasy truce. The gains have been unshowy and incremental. But when your aim is to conduct a responsive and responsible foreign policy, the avoidance of stupid things is often the avoidance of bloodshed and unforeseen strife. History suggests that it is not a mantra to be derided or dismissed.