Obama in Foreign Policy Interview: Warmonger or Milquetoast?

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To the foreign policy left, Obama is a turncoat who spoke out against the George W. Bush Administration’s expansion of executive power during the 2008 campaign only to adopt some of Bush’s security-over-civil-liberties policies on taking office. To those on the right, Obama is a turncoat determined to cede American global preeminence to a combination of rising powers like China and India, and multilateral institutions like the United Nations.

Obama gave both sides material to work with in his exclusive interview with TIME’s Fareed Zakaria on Wednesday. On the one hand, he used some of his strongest language to date to indicate his willingness to use force against Iran and al-Qaeda. At the same time, he reiterated his belief that multilateral institutions like the United Nations and ASEAN are needed to help tackle problems America is incapable of handling by itself.

Obama as much as said that if Iran does not accept the international community’s offer to allow them to pursue a peaceful nuclear power program within the constraints of non-proliferation treaties he will resort to military force. “We will take every step available to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “They can have peaceful nuclear power, as other countries do, subject to restrictions by the [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]… Can we guarantee that Iran takes the smarter path? No, which is why I’ve repeatedly said we don’t take any options off the table in preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon.”

As for al-Qaeda, Obama is set on continuing his strikes against them in Afghanistan and in the “safe havens” in Pakistan, including the controversial use of drone strikes. “We refocused attention on al-Qaeda, and they are badly wounded,” Obama said. “They’re not eliminated, but with the defeat not just of bin Laden but of most of the top leadership, the tightening noose around their safe havens, the incapacity for them to finance themselves – they’re much less capable than they were back in 2008… The counterterrorism strategy as applied to al-Qaeda has been extremely successful. The job’s not finished but there’s no doubt that we have severely degraded al-Qaeda’s capacity.”

Obama struck a much more institutionalist tone when talking about China. China will “inevitably” become the world’s largest economy, if it isn’t already, Obama said. “Assuming that they maintain stability and current growth patterns, then, yes, it’s inevitable. Even if they slow down somewhat, they’re so large that they’d probably end up being, just in terms of the overall size of the economy, the largest.” So the U.S. must rally allies to convince the fast-growing power to adhere to international rules, Obama said. “We’ve strengthened our alliances with Japan and South Korea,” he said, and “We have involved ourselves in the regional architecture, including organizations like ASEAN and APEC.” The message to China? “What we’ve tried to say to them very clearly is: Look you guys have grown up… and in that context whether it’s maritime issues or trade issues, you can’t do whatever you think is best for you. You’ve got to play by the same rules as everybody else.”

But it’s not just in Asia that Obama believes the U.S. has to defer to alliances. “Our participation in multilateral organizations has been extremely effective,” he says. “In the United Nations, not only do we have a voice but we have been able to shape an agenda.” That’s designed to “create a set of international rules and norms that everyone can follow and that everyone can benefit from,” Obama says. “It’s an American leadership that is—that recognizes the rise of countries like China and India and Brazil; it’s a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits in terms of resources, capacity.”

Taken together, the interview provides rock-solid proof that Obama is a peace-loving, multilaterlist, war-mongering, American exceptionalist.