Obama and the Power of No

For now, at least, Obama is carrying out a foreign policy that errs on the side of caution, patience, restraint and economy.

In his use of American power and influence abroad, Barack Obama's critics say he has been reluctant, gun-shy and prone to saying one thing and doing another. They're right. They're only wrong in thinking it's a bad thing.

Egypt has undergone a military coup that critics complain we either failed to prevent or failed to promote. Syria's civil war is going on with the rebels losing ground and getting little help from Washington. The administration has floated a "zero option" in Afghanistan, which would mean pulling out all U.S. troops by the end of 2014.

Obama is getting slammed for lack of aggressiveness by crusading internationalists in both parties -- who brought us the Iraq war and the Afghan quagmire. If they think he's wrong, he must be doing something right.

They certainly do think he's wrong. Egypt? "He remains irresolute while Egyptians riot," complained former UN Ambassador John Bolton. Syria? A Washington Post editorial called his approach "weak and legalistic."

Afghanistan? "News of the 'zero option' damages our position in Afghanistan, erodes our standing with our allies, emboldens the Taliban and demoralizes our troops," declared House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif.

The substance behind the charges is real enough. Obama has not pulled out every stop to force Egypt one way or another. The Syrian rebels have been losing ground, while the arms promised by Washington have yet to arrive. Afghanistan stands a good chance of going to hell as soon as we hit the door.

None of these situations is working out in a way that is pleasing to us. So it must be Obama's fault, and it must be his responsibility to fix them. Right?

Well, no. The beginning of wisdom about the international realm is that those are not our countries. We don't have the responsibility to dictate what direction they take, and we don't have the means to impose our preferences. When we get deeply involved, we're apt to produce results very different from what we hope.

It's true that there is often a gap between Obama's words and his deeds. This may be because he's weak and indecisive. Or it could be because he's paying lip service to avoid taking action that carries grave hazards.

The latter possibility may be damned as a cynical ruse. But the path to wise policy does not always run straight and level through a field of daisies.

Obama called for the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad and said any use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line." In Egypt, the administration privately urged President Mohamed Morsi to make concessions to his opposition, while asking the military not to overthrow him. Neither listened.

When Obama finally agreed to send arms to the Syrian insurgents, some people hoped he was finally ready to make a difference. Alas, The New York Times reports, the help "could take months to have any impact on a chaotic battlefield" and is not likely to force Assad to the negotiating table.

That's not the worst outcome. By doing something, Obama proved his threat wasn't empty. But he avoided initiating a war that is far more dangerous for us to get into than to stay out of.

The president can't very well step way back from Egypt, our second largest aid recipient. So the State Department was obliged to make our desires known to the central players. Obama, however, is plainly averse to taking drastic action in a place outside our control -- and which has only minor implications for our security.

In Afghanistan, he acceded to the demands of his commander to expand the war. But in doing so, he insisted on an accelerated schedule for removing combat troops. The surge was a short-term concession for a long-term gain. Better than leaving early? No. But better than an open-ended project? For sure.

Obama proved in Libya that he is willing to deploy military force when the risk is low -- even if no tangible U.S. interest is at stake. But overall, he has weighted the scales against intervention and interference. Those who expected him to deploy air power in Syria, threaten an aid cutoff in Egypt and carry on an endless fight in Afghanistan seem to have misjudged him.

For now, at least, Obama is carrying out a foreign policy that errs on the side of caution, patience, restraint and economy. As for the critics, you know what? We tried their way.

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  • Ted S.||

    For now, at least, Obama is carrying out a foreign policy that errs on the side of caution, patience, restraint and economy.

    I think it's more that he doesn't know what he's doing. A broken clock is right twice a day and all that.

  • SugarFree||

    I'm pretty sure he's on military time. And someone unplugged the clock. And then threw it out of a moving car. And the clock exploded.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "Oops! I should have warned you. That clock gets incredibly hot if you leave it plugged in."

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Many of you here in the Peanut Gallery predicted Obama would jump into a war in Syria. Of course you were wrong yet again. 'John' is wrong all the time in fact.

    So now when he exercises restraint he "doesn't know what he is doing". His one manned military attack (into Pakistan) was a resounding success.

    But he doesn't know what he is doing? The Peanut Gallery has spoken again.

  • Lord Humungus||

    PB: proof that the Democrat cock isn't going to suck itself.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Don't worry. There is another Bush coming down the pike for you.

    http://news.yahoo.com/george-p.....33798.html

    George P. Bush this time.

    "SMOKE EM OUT!"

  • ||

    BOOOOOOOSH!

    *drink*

  • sarcasmic||

    You sure are good at winning against arguments that no one is making except the straw man in your head!

    Bravo!

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Ted led off with the stupid comment of the day - that Obama doesn't know what he is doing.

    How is refuting that a straw man?

    Did Obama attack the wrong country? With an inappropriate use of force? Declare Mission Accomplished six years early? Deliberately hand over a large oil producer to Iran?

  • sarcasmic||

    d
    e
    r
    p

  • ||

    Did Obama attack the wrong country? With an inappropriate use of force?

    Depends on whether you think Libya and Pakistan are the "right countries" and whether several hundred millions of dollars worth of air and drone strikes are "inappropriate use of force".

    Declare Mission Accomplished six years early?

    We don't yet know how long his fuckup in Egypt is going to last, so it's hard to say whether it was 6 years or 6 months, but in any case, yeah, he sure did.

    Not everyone subscribes to the foreign policy outlook of "If the president Obama does it, that means it's not illegal".

  • Sevo||

    Palin's Buttplug| 7.22.13 @ 8:43AM |#
    "Ted led off with the stupid comment of the day - that Obama doesn't know what he is doing."

    Poor, poor shitstain. Still shilling for that lying POS.

  • ||

    mmm, peanuts. Kinda jonesing for some satay chicken now

  • wareagle||

    so what is he doing? He bloviates about how Mubarak and Qaddafi "must go" but says nothing about the seemingly worse Assad. In fact, his most forceful words are aimed at the one democracy in the Middle East. But you keep sucking that Obama cock.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said in a written statement. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

    Obama’s first explicit call for Assad to resign — something critics have pressured him to do — culminated months of calibrated diplomacy that has included three rounds of sanctions and a gradual policy shift toward regime change in a nation long at odds with U.S. policy in the Middle East.

    http://articles.washingtonpost.....ian-people

  • ||

    PB rushes to defend Obama for being an interventionist after praising his level-headed consistency and reluctance to become an interventionist.

    Poe's Law, QED.

  • Loki||

    In PB's world Obama is the moste awesomest president evar and anything he does, even the seemingly contradictory stuff is always right no matter what. We just can't see it because we're too stupid to understand the raw awesomest that is Obama.

  • wwhorton||

    ...except that the 82nd Airborne has been conducting training exercises involving dropping into and securing an airfield and then demolishing a "chemical weapons facility." But I'm sure that's got nothing to do with Syria. Probably just routine drills.

  • Free Society||

    You're giving the president too much credit. And then you give the craptastic author of this article too much credit by agreeing to his asinine and utterly false premise.

  • Free Society||

    You're giving the president too much credit. And then you give the craptastic author of this article too much credit by agreeing to his asinine and utterly false premise.

  • PD Quig||

    That's a LOT of cock to suck!! Can you shoot us her picture, Ken?

  • mr lizard||

    Drone Dimplomacy, same great Imperialsm Flavor and half the nation building calories. Cuz nothing represents arrogance like the sanitized clean hands of our great Nobel Peace Prizer

  • PD Quig||

    Come on, now. He is a "clean, articulate" negro (Shit! I didn't mean to use that word!! At least I didn't use the word niggardly...THAT would be racist).

  • BakedPenguin||

    Chapman had been doing well. Good to see he's back to living down to expectations.

    In good news, the US MNT curb-stomped mighty El Salvador, now face Honduras.

  • mnarayan||

  • phandaal||

    This is a joke, right? Expanded war in Afghanistan, expanded US presence in Africa and the Pacific, expanded drone war.

    Yeah, he's totally all about the "no."

  • Ted S.||

    Reads to me like a cosmotarian trying to get invited to the "cool" cocktail parties in DC.

  • wareagle||

    In his use of American power and influence abroad,...

    Chapman lost me early. Obama has little use for American power and influence aside from diminishing it. And when Stevie calls it a good thing in admitting Obama's habit of doing one thing and saying another, he sounds of the partisan grasping at any and all straws to deny the obvious.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    a foreign policy that errs on the side of caution, patience, restraint and economy.

    Dithering is not really a "policy".

  • some guy||

    Yet another example of how easy it is to write an article about how things could have been worse. I guess we could use the reminder from time to time, though.

  • Jake345||

    chapman wrote this?..no way, never would have guessed it

  • Jon Lester||

    Maybe I was a single-issue voter, but I felt foreign policy to be a rather big one, and for all the reasons why people are dissatisfied with how Obama's otherwise governed, I knew I didn't want McCain or Romney carelessly antagonizing the other great powers.

  • Wendell||

    Clearly there has been no military coup in Egypt. We're still giving them foreign aid.

  • Anders||

    This is possibly the worst article on reason.com this year.

    Egypt - We openly facilitated a fake revolution that was actually a highly rigged election that empowered the MB, who emphatically do NOT have majority support and who are furthermore directly opposed to US interests. They are a terrorist organization and the mother and father of many newer ones.

    Syria - We certainly are arming 'rebels' (of dubious origin and motive) and providing 'advice'.

    Libya - Benghazi. That travesty was an appalling US foreign policy failure and shameful resulting in the sacking of a US embassy and the death of 4 Americans. Read Brandon Webb's short ebook about that particular clusterfark.

    And the hits just keep coming.

  • Free Society||

    For now, at least, Obama is carrying out a foreign policy that errs on the side of caution, patience, restraint and economy.

    I read the tag line and knew instantly that this could only be a Steve Chapman article. Caution, restraint, economy are the words being used to describe Obama's foreign policy. What fucking planet do you live on Chapman?

  • Jackand Ace||

    Well said, Steve. And you are right, it flies in the face of those who just want to whine and complain...take a look at most of the comments here. Whining and complaining for their own sake.

    His policy is one we should have implemented long ago. Libya was a case in point. Rather than respond to the pleas of Britain and France, we finally said to them if its so important to you, its time to belly up to the bar and lead the way. Bravo...its about time.

    But to the closet neo-cons here, its "dithering." Good for dithering.

  • PD Quig||

    Well, there is that kinetic activity (or was it a 'man-caused disaster'?) thingee where we dropped bombs and provided thousands of Stinger missiles to Allah-knows-who. We did that with exactly zero congressional approval. That kind of dead human beings shit used to get Dem panties in a twist--even when they had voted for it and jumped up and down saying "We have to stop this fiend before he kills more Americans!"

    Where the fuck DID I put my antiwar movement? Damn, I coulda sworn that the POS was right here for eight fucking years and now all of a sudden I can't find the motherfucker to save my dumbassed life.

    It's always in the last place you look, I guess (because you'd really have to be pretty damned stupid to keep looking after you'd already found it in the last place you looked).

  • Free Society||

    In his use of American power and influence abroad, Barack Obama's critics say he has been reluctant, gun-shy and prone to saying one thing and doing another. They're right. They're only wrong in thinking it's a bad thing.

    Gun shy? You write for a libertarian magazine, and you yourself pretend to be libertarian and you think Obama's critics consistently characterize him as gun-shy and reluctant to use force? Next you'll tell us that Obama has been the most laissez-faire president since Calvin Coolidge.

  • Free Society||

    Egypt has undergone a military coup that critics complain we either failed to prevent or failed to promote. Syria's civil war is going on with the rebels losing ground and getting little help from Washington. The administration has floated a "zero option" in Afghanistan, which would mean pulling out all U.S. troops by the end of 2014.

    The problem has never been support or lack of support for one regime or another. The problem is that these upheavals are funded and continue to be funded by the US government. Whether you disagree with foreign aid on principle in general or practical grounds in this case in particular, either way it's a problem. I certainly wouldn't expect psuedo-libertarian Steve Chapman to see any problem with that foreign aid.

  • Free Society||

    Obama is getting slammed for lack of aggressiveness by crusading internationalists in both parties -- who brought us the Iraq war and the Afghan quagmire. If they think he's wrong, he must be doing something right.

    Last I checked Obama was a staunch liberal interventionist, directly in favor of the Afghan quagmire and still keeps around 50,000 troops in Iraq. How much longer are you going to ignore this, Chapman?

  • Free Society||

    None of these situations is working out in a way that is pleasing to us. So it must be Obama's fault, and it must be his responsibility to fix them. Right?

    Well, no. The beginning of wisdom about the international realm is that those are not our countries. We don't have the responsibility to dictate what direction they take, and we don't have the means to impose our preferences. When we get deeply involved, we're apt to produce results very different from what we hope.


    What a joke. No means to impose preferences? You think Obama IS NOT a liberal interventionist who sees it as a duty to intervene? Someone tell that to Gaddafi or the piles of bones that remain of the drone strike victims in Pakistan, Yemen and wherever else his secret wars are waged. Chapman, how do you get paid for these little writings of yours? I have to undergo an intense bout of mental gymnastics to pretend that you have any credibility.

  • Free Society||

    It's true that there is often a gap between Obama's words and his deeds. This may be because he's weak and indecisive. Or it could be because he's paying lip service to avoid taking action that carries grave hazards.

    Ah so he's a noble liar, lying to us for our own pathetic good. Thank goodness Obama averts all those grave hazards to his popularity ratings.

  • Free Society||

    That's not the worst outcome. By doing something, Obama proved his threat wasn't empty. But he avoided initiating a war that is far more dangerous for us to get into than to stay out of.

    So by promising to do something, and then actually does nothing, he's still doing something by promising to do something? You're right Chapman, this foreign policy's only weakness is that it's just too brilliant.

  • Free Society||

    The president can't very well step way back from Egypt, our second largest aid recipient. So the State Department was obliged to make our desires known to the central players. Obama, however, is plainly averse to taking drastic action in a place outside our control -- and which has only minor implications for our security.

    He can't very well step back from Egypt...why? If we don't give them aid, we die? Heaven forbid we even consider cutting aid to a revolving door of Islamist and totalitarian regimes.

  • Free Society||

    In Afghanistan, he acceded to the demands of his commander to expand the war. But in doing so, he insisted on an accelerated schedule for removing combat troops. The surge was a short-term concession for a long-term gain. Better than leaving early? No. But better than an open-ended project? For sure.

    And what would that long term gain be, exactly? To be perceived as being more reasonable? If you argue that everyday the US remains there is a waste and a lost cause, how can you look at the surge as a gain in the long run? It's just a further loss of blood and treasure. Be consistent Chapman, I know that's hard for you to fathom.

  • Free Society||

    Obama proved in Libya that he is willing to deploy military force when the risk is low -- even if no tangible U.S. interest is at stake. But overall, he has weighted the scales against intervention and interference
    [...]
    For now, at least, Obama is carrying out a foreign policy that errs on the side of caution, patience, restraint and economy. As for the critics, you know what? We tried their way.

    You just finish outlining Obama's willingness to use force when it's convenient and unnecessary and then use the words "caution, patience, restraint, and economy" to describe that same foreign policy. Do you actually read the stuff you write? I'm certain the editors at Reason aren't reading it, so we'll just have to rely on you to censor your own fallacious reasoning and outright falsehoods. God help us.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    I love you, man.

  • Tony||

    You forgot the one irrefutable basic fact of the universe that contradicts this argument: nothing Obama does can possibly ever be anything but wrong.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    I love you, too.

  • Free Society||

    If the shoe fits...

  • PD Quig||

    Kind of what you'd expect from a motherfucker that was a IL state senator of zero repute just 7 years ago. All those federal worker training programs finally paid off with the first OJT president.

    I had an idea for a new movie...kind of the reverse of the movie "Dave." In this version, the actual president is a complete ignoramus when it comes to economics, finance, history, geography, and is a petulant, arrogant little twat to boot. When the president dies (I can dream can't I?) they pull some jug-eared beanpole off the street in Chicago and he becomes president. Unfortunately for him, not only can he shoot decent hoop and play decent golf, but he is a nice guy and has a passable knowledge of 8th grade arithmetic. I realize that it is a stretch that they could find such a guy in Chicago but that's my plot. Maybe I could make it Detroit or Washington DC...anywhere but Texas.

    Think Hollywood will buy my screenplay?

  • Free Society||

    I'm not sure if it would be better marketed as a comedy or a tragedy.

  • Mark22||

    It's tough to decide: would a stupid intervention in, say, Egypt have been worse than Obamacare?

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