Heat directed at the Obama administration hasn’t all come in the form of the unrelenting, shrill noises made by screamers on the right. It’s no secret that there are elements at the progressive end of the political spectrum who have had issues with this president as well, perhaps more noticeably so in the area of foreign policy than elsewhere. For many of this ilk, a sense that Obama’s foreign policy direction has in many respects too closely resembled that of his predecessor has been a disappointment for which they were hardly prepared. The more radical left would of course have had problems with the saber rattling initiated against Gaddafi and the prominent U.S. role played in his ouster in Libya. More recently, this predisposition to going the interventionist route has bubbled up again in the administration’s engagement of the tumultuous happenings in Assad’s Syria.
After reports that Assad was turning loose armed personnel against peacefully demonstrating civilians, it’s hard to imagine anyone, even including hard-line activists on the left, taking exception to the administration’s expressions of outrage over what looked to be an unconscionably violent Assad response. Subsequent demands by the president for Assad to step down began to look eerily like a Libya rerun. Then last week the administration’s faceoff with Syria got a bit more dicey when crowds supposedly loyal to the Syrian leadership converged on the American ambassador’s motorcade on his way to meet with a political figure opposed to Assad. Predictably, there came the Obama administration’s cries of dirty pool, with claims that the Syrian government was deliberately lax in responding to the difficulties the ambassador and his party had gotten into. But could there be a clearer example of the kind of meddling in the internal affairs of a foreign government, for which such “enforcer” tactics in the Bush-Cheney era were so vehemently denounced?
Did we miss something here? Did it at some point become standard procedure for diplomatic representation to include being publicly hostile to the government of a host country? I mean, conveying to the Assad regime the U.S. government’s concerns about its behavior is perfectly fine. But doesn’t a diplomat cross the line when he not only disparages the incumbent government, but openly moves to make nice with its rival for control? Surely, it could only be political theater when, following such devil-may-care bravado, there’s an official U.S. affectation of shock about Syrian civilians’ angry reaction. This is on Syrian soil, for heaven’s sake, where you have the American Ambassador, Robert Ford, described in a New York Times report as an “outspoken critic” of Assad. If this isn’t undue meddling, what is?
The administration of George W. Bush put this country through a period, starting with the hair-trigger invasion and occupation of Iraq, in which throwing America’s weight around was advanced as option one for international engagement. We’ve always maintained here that, save for an unyielding resistance from the Iraqi insurgency that bogged down the operation, God only knows how much that show-of-force routine would have been manifested in other military misadventures. That administration included in strategic places subscribers to some “New American Century” notion in which the power tripping that precipitated the Iraq mess could have been an even more menacing imprimatur of the Bush presidency. Certainly, the administration’s irreverent disdain for the U.N. offered precious little reassurance that Bush and company could be persuaded to rein in their appetite for cowboy diplomacy.
That very forgettable interlude is much too recent for anything remotely reminiscent of it to be served up today. Thankfully, the Obama administration, with its promise of regaining American respect throughout the world, is light years removed from that Bush-Cheney brand of lunacy. The current policy of being butt-kicking tough where necessary is unassailable, as in the elimination of bin Laden and the more recent taking out in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki (rubbish about the latter’s due process as an American citizen notwithstanding).
But the unending episodes of violence in Iraq stand as clear evidence of the rocky road this enticement to imposed regime change can prove to be. Who knows whether a copy-cat version in Libya is waiting in the wings? The president has already demonstrated that he can make the hawkish-sounding calls when he has to. There is no need for him to risk over-compensating on the toughness front by encroaching on a sovereign state’s own political battleground. Decades ago, world leaders intelligently determined that a special forum should address internal strife anywhere around the world, which reached alarming proportions. Enter the United Nations. Unilateral calls for removal of the head of a sovereign state tips over into interference that recalls the ghost of Bush. This president must be disciplined enough to avoid going there himself, and to restrain minions, such as his man in Syria, doing likewise.
Obama already has sufficient to ponder, reelection-wise, regarding a stubbornly growth-resistant economy. He clearly doesn’t need to exacerbate matters by drawing attention to any performance issues in foreign policy. Plus, the cold truth is that, never mind how much he tacks to a hawkish demeanor, he will never pass muster with the crowd that’s unapologetically of hawkish orientation. Those in his own base now perhaps getting antsy about uncharacteristic foreign policy moves may wind up voting for him anyway. But why chance it? It seems more prudent to steer well clear of any pretensions to “big stick” posturing.