So What Exactly is U.S. Foreign Policy These Days, President Obama? And Does it Have Any Effect on Our Standing in the World?

Earlier today, Matt Welch summarized President Barack Obama's less-than-clear-cut defense of free expression at the United Nations today. Writes Welch:

If all it takes to earn a White House call for global condemnation of a single piece of expression is some violent protests outside a dozen or two diplomatic missions, then the perpetually aggrieved know exactly what to do the next time they pluck out some bit of cultural detritus to be offended by.

It is not any politician's job, and certainly not any American politician's job, to instruct the entire world on which films to criticize.

I understand why Obama talked about the video "The Innocence of Muslims," but hasn't his administration already - if belatedly - admitted that the protest in Benghazi wasn't the result of that video?

The Obama admin had to be dragged toward the truth, but its members have given largely up the pretense that our ambassador in the country Obama unconstitutionally helped liberate from the sky was killed in some spontaneous reaction to a ludicrous video. If the video wasn't the reason Chris Stevens died in Libya, is it really that useful an explanation for why big majorities in the Middle East and Pakistan distrust the U.S.?

When it comes to anti-American attitudes in Egypt, it's true that U.S. intelligence sources were warning about a possible outburst before protesters overran our embassy there. But it seems that in the rush to blame everything on a 14-minute video that had been partly aired on Egyptian TV, folks - especially Obama - seem in a hurry to avoid discussions of American foreign policy in the region for the past 50 years or more.

As Tim Cavanaugh notes, the Obama admin was exceptionally slow to tell Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak to hit the bricks even after it was clear that the long-time U.S. ally and aid recipient's day was done. Whatever message Obama thought he might have been sending, the one most likely received was pretty simple: The U.S. backed a thug by pouring billions of dollars of aid his way and then ultimately failed to buttress him in his last days.

In a different way, that's the message that was sent to Gaddafi as well, who had made nice with the U.S. after decades of enmity. If I was a dictator in the Middle East or elsewhere, I'd figure that playing by American rules may bring some extra dollars your way (and domestic concerns that you are a tool of the U.S.) while not delivering much in the way of support when you need it most.

As Egypt's current president, Mohammed Morsi, told The New York Times recently, “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region.” That may not be a purely objective, accurate reading of America's actual impact, but it is what the guy running Egypt believes. And what lots of people spread around the globe believe.

Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson has proposed a generally non-interventionist foreign policy. You may not agree with it, but it gives a pretty good decision matrix of when and where the U.S. would get militarily involved around the planet.

There's little (read: nothing) in Obama's U.N. speech that clarifies how the United States will decide when and where to intervene and to what end. Not in today's speech or anything that he's said since becoming president. Mitt Romney's vision for foreign policy is similarly vague.

At least since the end of the Cold War, we've had a foreign policy that seems to be mostly driven by personal whimsy. Bill Clinton ordered more military deployments than Ronald Reagan, and it was never clear - except when he did so to put off domestic scandals - precisely how he picked and chose his targets and their timing. George W. Bush's initial invasion of Afghanistan had a clear objective - capturing bin Laden and the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks - but the long-range nation-building exercise that's still in place has never been focused or prone to success. The invasion of Iraq was at best a non sequitur in the war on terror. Under Obama, nothing has been made more clear. Tripling troops in Afghanistan? Sending troops to Central Africa? Bombing Libya? Drone strikes here, there, and everywhere (even targeting U.S. citizens without judicial review)?

How the hell is anyone supposed to know when and where the U.S. will land in any given situation? You won't know from Obama's speech which is filled with lazy honorifics and vague exhortations to all the lessons history teaches. And these goalposts that are far and wide enough apart that anything might happen: "The United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue...[but] Understand that America will never retreat from the world."

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  • Trespassers W||

    The United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue...[but] Understand that America will never retreat from the world.

    Jeez, that isn't clear enough for you? What he's saying is that the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue. Also, he's saying that America will never retreat from the world.

  • Brandybuck||

    Thanks for translating.

  • MJGreen||

    But retreat to where?

  • Pro Libertate||

    L2?

  • Bardas Phocas||

    L4 is where the cool kids hang out.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I thought it was supposed to be L5? I mean, there's a whole society and everything.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    They're not cool. I used to be a member.
    Total nerds.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Okay, that explains why NASA is eschewing Lagrange 5.

    ZZ Top predicted all of this, along with space prostitutes:

    Rumor spreadin' a 'round in that Texas town [Houston?]
    'Bout that shack outside La Grange.
    (and you know what I'm talkin' about.)
    Just let me know if you wanna go
    To that home out on the range.
    They gotta lotta nice girls ah.

    Have mercy.
    A haw, haw, haw, haw, a haw.
    A haw, haw, haw.

    Well, I hear it's fine if you got the time,
    And the ten to get yourself in.
    A hmm, hmm.
    And I hear it's tight most ev'ry night,
    But now I might be mistaken.
    Hmm, hmm, hmm.

    Ah have mercy.

  • Paul.||

    'Retreat from the world' is a euphemism for "gettin' libertarian"

    Let me do a real translation:

    The United States will not seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions in first world countries abroad, and we don't expect other nations to agree with us on our freedoms, namely the pesky first amendment, but understand, America is no Libertarian paradise.

  • Pro Libertate||

    We'll never be libertarian? Well, them's fightin' words.

  • Killazontherun||

    Will the Obama administration distance itself from the outside agitators in Syria in the same language as they distanced themselves from the video clip? 'We had nothing to do with them.' [tears up receipt from the CIA/MI-6 front sponsoring them]

  • Anonymous Coward||

    So America will never get in your business...unless you make the wrong choice.

    Got it.

  • wareagle||

    how about getting into their business and, thereby, enabling a choice some may not like. It's not like the Brotherhood was unknown when Obama was squawking that Mubarak had to go.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    What can I say? America sucks at playing empire. The only reason the Pax Americana has lasted as long as it has is deficit spending.

  • Killazontherun||

    Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson has proposed a generally non-interventionist foreign policy. You may not agree with it, but it gives a pretty good decision matrix of when and where the U.S. would get militarily involved around the planet.

    As Tim Cavanaugh notes, the Obama admin was exceptionally slow to tell Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak to hit the bricks even after it was clear that the long-time U.S. ally and aid recipient's day was done.

    Do you see the problem here? Which is it, hit the bricks, or not intervening?

  • Killazontherun||

    'cause supporting the Arab Spring as member's of the Reason staff have expressed and continue to express is not the same as non-intervention which the very same staff members express approval in other articles on, say, Ron Paul.

  • Paul.||

    It is not any politician's job, and certainly not any American politician's job, to instruct the entire world on which films to criticize.

    And what I find utterly fantastic is, the above is, by my account, some fringe, crackpot, minority view.

  • Tman||

    Our policy is to do something that makes those angry people stop doing that crazy stuff they do, unless it means that they are REALLY angry in which case we will do what we've always done-

    "Wherever there's suffering, injustice, and oppression, America will show up six months late and bomb the country next to where it's happening."

    -PJ O'Rourke

  • Paul.||

    If the video wasn't the reason Chris Stevens died in Libya, is it really that useful an explanation for why big majorities in the Middle East and Pakistan distrust the U.S.?

    To the Obama Zombie Pep Squad, not only yes, but Hell Yes. They're trying to position the behemoth of a turd to show that:

    1. Prior to the film video clip, Obama was doing so well in regards to our position in the world.

    2. That this posting of the video clip on youtube is the Abu Graib of Obama's foreign policy.

    Remember how the Bush administration viewed Abu Graib? That the perpetrators of the abuse had "lost the war" and had damaged Bush's good works overseas? Yep, Obamatrons are essentially going to put the boat on the same tack. But for the irresponsible "free speech" of some intolerant bigots, Obama's sterling foreign policy is now tainted.

    Narrative: It's not Obama's fault. Stay on message. What Romney did to that dog is really awful...

  • ||

    I watched a couple of minutes of Salman Rushdie on the Daily Show yesterday (first time I'd watched the Daily Show in god knows how long) and in the part I caught they seemed to be talking like what happened in the Middle East was that a few kooky manipulative Muslim powerplayers got all the dumb common folk riled up over a terrible, reprehensible, awful, disrespectful movie. And so the bad guys here are those manipulative people, and of course anyone who helped make that offensive, disgusting, vile, putrid, unwatchable movie. But that's it. Nothing to do with foreign policy.

    I changed the channel at that point, for obvious reasons I hope. Did anyone actually watch the entire interview and have a different/better interpretation of what was said? It doesn't feel entirely fair since I didn't see much of it.

  • Overt||

    Actually I think this is about right. It really was the asshole imams and the dicks making the movie.

    That isn't the fault of Obama.

    Obama's fault lies in the story he sold to America- the one whee talking nice to savages would somehow engender world peace. These people will never be satisfied with the west, and will always find offense with our customs. Obama deserves ridicule for promising anything more than that truth.

  • Paul.||

    There's little (read: nothing) in Obama's U.N. speech that clarifies how the United States will decide when and where to intervene and to what end

    Modern progressives don't do that. It's why they see the Constitution as a suicide pact. A document enumerating exactly what powers you shall have, and if not listed here, they're not permitted? That kind of straight-jacket just isn't cricket.

    Nope, ill-defined, expansive and vague powers. Just make sure your guy is in charge.

  • The Derider||

    Mentioning Gary Johnson as a credible foreign policy alternative to Obama, while failing to mention Gary Johnson's insane "vacate all foreign embassies" plan, strikes me as either laughably ignorant or nefariously calculating.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Now that we've heard the Sesame Street version of Gary Johnson's foreign policy, let's see his actual platform:

    Complete withdrawal from Afghanistan
    Reassessment of deployments in Europe
    Making the foreigners pay for their own national defense
    No torture of accused or suspected terrorists
    Relief for the unjustly incarcerated or detained
    Due process for those accused or suspected of terrorism
    No indefinite detention

    Now, which of these troubles your tiny mind?

  • Paul.||

    The "retreating from the world" part, I'm guessing. Roads and Somalia FTW!

  • The Derider||

    “I questions having embassies in other countries, I really do. Everywhere! I understand American tourists and issues American tourists might have with passports but does that involve an embassy? Does that involve having an ambassador?” he said to Reason during an interview.

    “Let’s get out of these embassies now. Let’s stop making ourselves a target,” Johnson said.

    No, that part.

  • OldMexican||

    Joe, sweetheart, he was talking about embassies in Middle Eastern countries. Nobody has yet attacked the US embassy in Finland. Or Mexico City, for that matter.

  • ||

    No, he wasn't.

  • Calidissident||

    So if you had to choose between a foreign policy of perpetual war with embassies and no war with no embassies, you'd choose the former? I'm not saying I fully agree with GJ on that, but you place that high a value on embassies to the point where it makes up for unjust wars that leave thousands dead?

  • The Derider||

    It reveals his actual knowledge of foreign policy is at Sarah Palin levels.

  • Calidissident||

    It doesn't matter how many die. Only how knowledgeable the man doing it is. Got it.

  • Not an Economist||

    You do understand we have fought with countries where we never had an embassy?

  • wareagle||

    I'm on board with the first three, less so with the fourth, no firm thought just yet on number 5, calling bullshit on 6 (if the application is for non-Americans), and okay with 7.

    My favorite remains the third - nations hosting US military installations are welcome to pay for the privilege of the protection we provide. It's time we stop the global welfare wagon.

  • Calidissident||

    Don't get how you have a problem with 6 and not 7.

  • ||

    Be nice to joe. He's a midget trapped in a dwarf's body.

  • The Derider||

    He said that last week you rube. Reason reported on it.

    http://reason.com/blog/2012/09.....ut-of-thes

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Amazing how that in no way answers my question, you mark. And if you find it that objectionable that we should shutter embassies, you could, at the very least, describe why we need to build, what amount to fortresses, in foreign countries. You could valiantly defend the necessity of an ambassador's presence in a foreign country, in an age of instantaneous communication.

    Instead, you go *derp* laughable *derp* nefarious *derpity derp*.

  • ||

    Derider doesn't grok the difference between a consulate and an embassy. He also doesn't seem to grok the concept that many diplomatic and civil service missions do not require us to have large Imperial outposts in conquered foreign territory.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: The Derider,

    while failing to mention Gary Johnson's insane "vacate all foreign embassies" plan, strikes me as either laughably ignorant or nefariously calculating.


    One can't "fail" to mention something that is not so, Joe.

  • The Derider||

  • ||

    Thanks joe. Short but pointless. Just like your comments.

  • The Derider||

    I imagine the irony of your post is lost on you.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: The Derider,

    I have to feel sorry for you since you've proven to be a sad reminder of the terrible results of the Amerikan Pulbic Skool Seistem, as you seem to be confused with the meaning of the word "all" and "these."

    "Let's get out of these embassies now. Let's stop making ourselves a target," Johnson said.

  • Pro Libertate||

    He did have a little more where he questioned the need for embassies at all, but I'm pretty sure that was just an aside to back up his statement that we should get out of these more dangerous countries. I rather agree.

    The choice is continue the endless wars, killing, and needless intervention, or don't. The former is the position of Obama and Romney, the latter is the position of Johnson.

  • ||

    Which is more insane, Vacate Now or Team America: World Police? Because as stupid as you believe Vacate Now is (I'm not going to argue that point), Team America is waaay stupider.

  • The Derider||

    If Nick Gillespie would make that point, fine. I don't agree with the conclusion but at least it's honest.

    But pretending that Johnson didn't make this gaffe in the first place? Come on.

  • Jordan||

    Nothing an embassy does could not be done remotely. Embassy != consulate.

  • The Derider||

    So you suggest that the state department observe the detention conditions of Americans abroad via drone?

    Or undertake high level foreign negotiations via facebook?

  • Jordan||

    Haha, because Facebook is the only means of electronic communication, see! Somebody should invent video conferencing!

    And I'm pretty sure the consulate is responsible for dealing with prisoners.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Consular services ≠ diplomatic mission.

    In your feeble effort to mock Bush, you come off just as incompetent as he did.

  • wareagle||

    this man cannot bring himself to issue a simple, unequivocal declaration that killing people, specifically the people he represents, over hurt feelings is a level of bullshit that won't be tolerated by us and should not be tolerated by anyone pretending to be part of the civilized world. In other words, I don't care what your pretext for violence was; that you folks go violent by default IS the problem and if you do it again, have you heard about these drones we have? And the bank account is cut off, too.

  • Paul.||

    So much for being "President of all of us".

  • idrisotto@gmail.com||

    How about this: "There is no excuse for attacks on our embassies and consulates. So long as I am commander-in-chief, the United States will never tolerate efforts to harm our fellow Americans."

    or: "The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack."

    Or are those too complex?

  • OldMexican||

    There's little (read: nothing) in Obama's U.N. speech that clarifies how the United States will decide when and where to intervene and to what end. Not in today's speech or anything that he's said since becoming president. Mitt Romney's vision for foreign policy is similarly vague.


    "Like a wolf in a lamb buffet,
    what do I fancy today?
    Hmm hmm hmm!"

  • OldMexican||

    As Egypt's current president, Mohammed Morsi, told The New York Times recently, "Successive American administrations essentially purchased[,] with American taxpayer money[,] the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region." That may not be a purely objective, accurate reading of America's actual impact[...]


    But it comes damned close to being one, Nick!

  • Robert||

    We must rely heavily on the element of surprise.

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