Hawks of both parties have been taking swipes at the "overly cautious" Barack Obama over the many foreign policy "crises" he recently has been trying to juggle. The general line of their analysis is that the world is going to hell, and Obama is doing nothing about it. The denigration has had the effect of lowering Obama’s public approval ratings in foreign policy. Yet that criticism ignores history and logic.
Among the adverse developments that Obama is currently dealing with are the radical Islamic State group taking over a substantial part of northern Iraq, Vladimir Putin’s stealth intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, tribal militias dividing up Libya, the spread of radical Islamism into Mali and other countries in northwestern Africa, heightened instability in Pakistan, and the Israeli war in Gaza and subsequent grabbing of 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank for new settlements.
However, except for the situation in Libya and western Africa, which were largely of Obama’s making, the other problems he is confronting have arisen from the policies of previous presidents. Since World War II, the U.S. government has trashed the traditional foreign policy of the nation’s founders, pursued for most of American history, of generally being reluctant to get involved in overseas wars. In the postwar era up to the present, the dominant U.S. superpower instead has been the most aggressive country on the planet, intervening militarily all over the world, even surpassing the totalitarian lesser Soviet superpower. Many Americans like to ignore or deny this excessively martial track record, because they assume that countries with authoritarian or totalitarian political systems are more aggressive than liberal democracies; empirical data, however, shows that democracies are no less aggressive than less free societies. That is, internal political systems don’t always correlate with policies toward other countries.
What has all this post-World War II military intervention gained for the United States? As a sample, let’s look at how the present "crises" arose. The Islamic State group is a direct descendent of al Qaeda in Iraq, which originally arose to battle George W. Bush’s unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Moreover, radical Islamist militancy, which is now virulent and spreading, was actively promoted by the United States during the Cold War as a counterweight to its Soviet rival.
The Russian nationalist Vladimir Putin was wrong to conduct surreptitious invasions of Crimea and now eastern Ukraine. Yet Putin was able to get elected in Russia because the United States, after the Cold War ended, repeatedly expanded the hostile NATO alliance right up to Russia’s borders. Out of weakness, not out of strength, Putin has invaded these areas in the Russian sphere of influence to try to salvage a security buffer zone in the face of NATO encroachment and the overthrow of a Russia-friendly Ukrainian government by a revolt from the street.
Instead of merely taking out al Qaeda and the Taliban, George W. Bush began a long-term nation-building occupation of Afghanistan. This U.S. occupation, along with its accompanying drone war in adjoining Pakistan, created the Pakistani Taliban and has dangerously destabilized a nation with nuclear weapons.
Israel used primitive, inaccurate rocket attacks by Hamas in Gaza as a pretext to launch a full-scale offensive against Hamas. To retaliate for Hamas’s kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youth, Israel has grabbed 1,000 acres owned by Palestinians in the West Bank to use for settlements. For years, Israel has stalled a meaningful peace settlement in Palestine in order to grab more Palestinian land. In the post-World War II era, most American presidents have encouraged such Israeli behavior by slavish U.S. political support and more than $3 billion a year in U.S. aid.
Only the Libyan civil war between tribal militias and the heightened spread of radical Islamism in northwestern Africa originated during the Obama administration. He caved into allied pressure to overthrow Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi using armed force. The militias who fought Gaddafi are now fighting among themselves. In addition, weapons from Gaddafi’s plentiful arms stockpiles ended up fueling an Islamist insurgency in nearby Mali, which the French are still trying to extinguish.
So the problem is not that Obama is a shrinking violet on the international scene, it is that the American public and media are so accustomed to their government pulling the trigger (or aiding others in doing so) at the slightest potential for an international problem. This misguided expectation leads American politicians to use the U.S. military to "do something" about any problem; to use any restraint is seen as weakness.
Given all the recent disasters arising from U.S. interventions – I have only mentioned a few recent ones, with many more occurring during the post-World War II period – the assumption that future meddling will make things better is a dubious one.
Although Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero, had an easier time denying that adverse foreign developments were "crises" requiring the U.S. armed intervention, Obama should continue his policy of caution, even in the face of withering fire from critics and interventionist public and media expectations.