America Can Lead, But It Can't Bully

Obama recognizes that U.S. power has limits.

The Associated Press

Obama is right: America must lead, but along with its allies.

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It’s easy, tempting even, to look at President Obama’s foreign policy record (and speech at West Point Wednesday) and accuse him of being weak, of deliberately retreating from the world stage and taking America’s influence with him. But while Obama is fairly criticized for some of his actions (or inactions), his much-maligned foreign policy vision is actually the vocalized conclusion America and Americans have been coming to over the course of decades.

“This is my bottom line: America must always lead. If we don’t, no one else will … But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even the primary – component of our leadership in every instance,” he said. Now, it’s also true, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted in a statement, that virtually no one is advocating that America suit up in military uniforms and bomb some foreign nation as soon as there’s trouble. But it’s also true that, for the most part, those who demand more “strength” and “leadership” from the president in foreign policy crises don’t really have a clear answer to the question – what, then, would you do?

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Syria is an awful, horrific human and humanitarian crisis, with appalling violence and abuse being inflicted on its citizens. Obama is rightly criticized for saying there was a “red line” Syria’s leader could not cross. The problem is not that Obama didn’t follow through with some big military attack. It’s that he never should have drawn any kind of line if he wasn’t truly willing to enforce it.

Ukraine poses a similar problem. No, we (and the rest of the civilized world) cannot condone Russia’s annexation of Crimea or threats to take other parts of Ukraine. But what should be done? Ours is a nation utterly exhausted from nearly a decade and a half of war. Americans don’t want to spend the money or sacrifice the human lives to fight in another foreign conflict, particularly one that does not directly threaten the United States. Putin knows this, so making “red line” threats would not only be meaningless, but would likely further embolden Putin, who would enjoy embarrassing the U.S. as he plays a real-life game of Risk. There’s no point in rattling a saber everyone knows will never be used.

Our military power is not the force it used to be. And that’s not because U.S. troops or their leadership are bad; it’s because in an era when people will fly suicide missions for no other reason than to kill Americans, even the best-funded and most ably-led military is not a deterrent. There is also a limit to the number of places in which the U.S. can intervene militarily, and Putin and the rest of the world’s problematic leaders know it. The fact that the United States has indeed shouldered so much of the burden for so long has given much of the rest of the world a pass in accepting leadership roles. Deeming the United States the unilateral leader of the free world is flattering, but it’s also a backhanded way of avoiding responsibility.

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Economic sanctions can work, but again, they must be multilateral. It’s not effective, and certainly not fair, to expect the U.S. to suffer the economic impact of some kind of embargo or commercial restrictions while other nations keep the business going. It’s also important to understand that economic sanctions can take awhile to work.

There was a time when the world came together to fight fascism and succeeded. There was a time when a cold war between two dominant superpowers kept much of the world in a tense sort of peace, with the concept of mutually assured destruction keeping both sides from pushing the button. We are in neither of those scenarios now, and we won’t be again. Countries once dismissed as “third world” are now growing economic powers (and economic threats). Terrorism – and cyberterrorism in particular – weakens even the strongest hardware military. Americans learned painfully, during two wearying wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that even a war fought by a superior military is not going to end quickly or easily, and might end with a bigger mess than existed before the armed conflict. 

Yes, there are things the U.S. can do (and the U.S. military can do) to give help to factions overseas as they battle their own wars. But this country does not want to take the lead role in such conflicts. This nation is still strong, and still admired by many. It can lead. It just can’t bully. And trying to bully will only make us weaker.