In the U.S. President’s own succinct, if off-colour, phrase, the Obama doctrine is: “Don’t do stupid shit.”
Barack Obama has, in recent months, repeatedly used that vulgarism to define, defend and explain his foreign policy. And despite well-intentioned efforts by some media to sanitize the President’s foul-mouthed version – usually by rephrasing it as “Don’t do stupid stuff” – Mr. Obama, who first used the line with reporters on board Air Force One last spring as he returned from Asia, has repeatedly opted for the cruder version in subsequent interviews.
Unlike Theodore Roosevelt’s much-admired “Speak softly and carry a big stick” – the phrase that became emblematic of foreign policy as the United States emerged as a superpower at the dawn of the 20th century – Mr. Obama’s crude dictum seems unlikely to be embraced by his successors or carved into the cornerstone of his presidential library.
Yet there’s more than a trace of truth in the President’s self-assessment, at least in terms of the realities of how Mr. Obama has performed on the world stage.
The President, who pocketed a Nobel Peace Prize within weeks of reaching the Oval Office, has little to show in terms of foreign-policy successes after nearly six years in the White House.
His critics accuse him of hesitancy and mixed messages that have diminished U.S. power and emboldened the country’s adversaries.
It’s a way to “avoid errors,” Mr. Obama claimed on his previous big overseas trip to Asia. “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”
It’s a far cry from the soaring oratory about ridding the world of nuclear weapons or delivering a new era in relations with the Muslim world or the pivot to the Pacific, all big sweeping visions unveiled by Mr. Obama at various stages of his presidency that have since been quietly discarded or downgraded.
Even his staunchest supporters find the “small ball” approach perplexing.
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state during Mr. Obama’s first term, said last week.
Ms. Clinton evidently has decided to distance herself from Mr. Obama as she considers another presidential run in 2016. In an interview with The Atlantic, she made a half-hearted attempt to explain that the President was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy.”
But Americans seem less worried that Mr. Obama is going off the deep end than they are just broadly disappointed with his presidency. The soaring “audacity of hope” has been replaced by the reality of ill-defined policy and uncertain action.
Approval rate, from bad to worse
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this month put the President’s approval rating at an all-time low of 40 per cent. On coping with the world, it was even worse: When asked whether they approved of “the job Barack Obama is doing handling foreign policy,” the rating sagged to 36 per cent.
That came with the world beset with crises: with Israeli warplanes pounding Gaza; a violent separatist insurrection threatening to spiral out of control in Ukraine; Beijing bullying its weaker, smaller neighbours in the South China Sea; an Ebola outbreak raging in West Africa; and the extremist Islamic State jihadis carving out a proto-caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Obama hasn’t even hit many singles.
His boldest first-term foray into foreign affairs – toppling Libya’s bizarre and brutal dictator Moammar Gadhafi with a seven-month bombing campaign billed as a no-fly zone enforced by NATO – looked impressive at first, but Libya has since collapsed into simmering civil war.
Even Mr. Obama admits he failed to follow-up after the air war. “We underestimated … the need to come in full-force,” he told The New York Times. “It’s the day after Gadhafi’s gone, when everyone’s feeling good and everybody’s holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you America,’ at that moment there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions.”
In Syria, where Mr. Obama first boldly drew a red line threatening air strikes then quickly abandoned it, the bloody toll after three years of civil war has topped 160,000. After backing down when Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad refused to be cowed by the President’s sabre-ratting, Mr. Obama had to seek help from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in a face-saving deal that left Mr. al-Assad in power.
Hesitancy has a price.
Failure to back Syrian rebels early and effectively gave the Islamist extremists now rampaging across western and northern Iraq the opportunity to emerge as a potent political and fighting force. The hesitancy to arm and support rebels in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Ms. Clinton says.