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."