Why avoiding errors in foreign policy isn't the same as getting hits.
President Barack Obama once again took the shellac of tough rhetoric to work in the cause of weak foreign policy on Monday, April 28, saying that critics of his foreign policies "would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests."
One of the reasons the president is such a polarizing force in American politics is that he caricatures the views of his critics, as though there is no legitimate basis for difference on the demanding issues of the day. So there can be no opposition to his policy on Syria without being labeled someone who would fight another war in the Middle East that the American people do not want, and there can be no policy options they have not already initiated. His strident insistence on the successes of his foreign policy drowned out one of the few small achievements of his "pivot" to Asia, the Philippine defense agreement.
Speaking of successes real or imagined, it's actually not unreasonable to expect, for example, that a president who makes grand trans-Pacific trade deals the cornerstone of his non-military foreign policy actually should make progress on those trade deals. President Obama has not. Moreover, his strategy of gaining congressional ratification for that signature achievement, should it materialize, is to invest none of his own political capital in arguing that trade is beneficial to the American economy -- this is the politician who campaigned in 2008 on the need to renegotiate NAFTA, after all.
Instead, President Obama privately tries to assure foreign governments that Senate Democrats will give him Trade Promotion Authority after November's election. Of course, he conveniently forgets to mention that this is an election in which his party is expected to be facing strong headwinds, is pointedly avoiding discussing the president's signature policies, and in which they will make no effort to gain a mandate on trade policy. One doesn't have to be a Bush administration militarist to believe the Japanese will be hesitant to run high domestic political risks without more proof that the president can deliver.
One also wonders whether Obama's belief in hope and change goes so far as to reassure allies that a Republican-controlled Senate will promptly ratify a deal in order to crown his waning days as president with the achievement. Surely his own three-year stall on trade deals with Panama, South Korea, and Colombia negotiated by the Bush administration should dash those hopes.
Obama bragged of his foreign policy that "it avoids errors. You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run." It is a fine thing for a president to invoke baseball metaphors. He is, however, mistaken as to his batting average, and to the nature of the game: Avoiding errors actually does not affect one's ability to hit the ball. Otherwise Mario Mendoza's name would not be synonymous with brilliant fielding and an inability to remain in the major leagues. You have to hit above .200 -- the Mendoza line -- as well master the art of fielding. But President Obama's foreign policy has missed at least eight out of 10 opportunities to protect and advance America's interests in the world.
"What is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?" the president challenged his audience. How about an Iraq that continued on the path to peaceful political accommodation? How about an Afghanistan strong and secure enough to shoulder its own security? How about an Israel that felt confident enough in our support to make political sacrifices? How about the existence of a functioning Palestinian state? How about a Syria with fewer than 150,000 victims and that was not a training ground for the next generation of jihadists? How about a Middle East that doesn't believe we care only about the weapons used -- not the civilians killed? How about an Egypt that had some idea how to manage the threats of political Islam within a democratic society? How about a Ukraine not dismembered by Russian irregulars? How about sanctions adequate to the task of deterring Vladimir Putin? How about allies confident in our assurances rather than hedging against abandonment in their hour of need? How about a China not emboldened by military challenges? And what about a Trans-Pacific trade deal? That's twelve at bats, and not one single.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images