Does Obama Lack a Foreign Policy Vision?

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On Monday, Mitt Romney charged that Barack Obama’s approach to Libya illustrates a deeper lack of vision in his foreign policy:

[T]hus far, the President has been unable to construct a foreign policy, any foreign policy. I think it’s fair to ask, you know, what is it that explains the absence of any discernable foreign policy from the president of the United States? And I believe that it flows from his fundamental disbelief in American exceptionalism. In the President’s world, all nations have common interests, the lines between good an evil are blurred, America’s history merits apology. And without a compass to guide him in our increasingly turbulent world, he’s tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced. And as a result, I think, he says, for instance, he’s committed to our success in Afghanistan unless it means commitment beyond 2011. He stands with our ally, Israel, but condemns its settlement policy even more forcefully than he condemns Hamas’ rockets. And he calls for the removal of Muammar Gaddafi, but then conditions our action on the directions we get from the Arab League and the United Nations.

Now, here’s another, and in some ways similar, critique of U.S. foreign policy from a few years ago:

[I]t’s not too early to draw some conclusions from our actions in Iraq. For our difficulties there don’t just arise as a result of bad execution. They reflect a failure of conception. The fact is, close to five years after 9/11 and fifteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States still lacks a coherent national security policy. Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur? Are our goals in Iran regime change, the dismantling of all Iranian nuclear capability, the prevention of nuclear proliferation, or all three? Are we commited to use force wherever there’s a despot regime that’s terrorizing its people–and if so, how long do we stay to ensure democracy takes root?…

Perhaps someone inside the White House has clear answers to these questions. But our allies–and for that matter our enemies–certainly don’t know what those answers are. More important, neither do the American people. Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, America will lack the legitimacy-and ultimately the power–it needs to make the world safer than it is today.”

Those words come from none other than Barack Obama, writing in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope. It’s a reminder that a clear and consistent foreign policy vision is hard to articulate, that geostrategy typically involves unpleasant concessions, tradeoffs and hypocricies.

It’s also worth noting that, in the passage after the one I cite above, Obama goes on to lay out some criteria for the use of military force. He cites multilateral political coalitions, a greater military role for coalition allies that doesn’t require America to do all the shooting, and an understanding that events in seemingly obscure places can pose a direct threat to American security. That’s a pretty good template for his approach to Libya. Whether it amounts to a coherent foreign policy is another question.

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