There has been a festival of commentary of late bemoaning the pusillanimous foreign policy of President Barack Obama. If only we had a president who rode horses shirtless, wrestled a tiger or took a bite out of a neighboring country, we’d all feel much safer. Your Honor, I rise in — partial — defense of Mr. Obama.
Let me start by asking a question I’ve asked about other countries: Is U.S. foreign policy today the way it is because Mr. Obama is the way he is (cerebral, cautious, dispassionate) or is Mr. Obama the way Mr. Obama is on foreign policy because America is the way America is today (burned by two failed wars and weakened by a great recession) and because the world is the way the world is (increasingly full of failed states and enfeebled U.S. allies)?
The answer is some of both, but I’d put more emphasis on the latter. Foreign policy, our ability and willingness to act in the world, is about three things: interests, values and leverage. Do we have an interest in getting involved in Syria or Crimea, are our values engaged, and — if either is true — do we have the leverage to sustainably tilt things our way at a price we can afford? Leverage is a function of two things: the amount of economic and military resources we can bring to bear and the unity of purpose of our partners on the ground and our allies elsewhere.
A lot of what makes America less active in the world today is a product first of all of our own diminished leverage because of actions taken by previous administrations. The decisions by the Bush I and Clinton teams to expand NATO laid the seeds of resentment that helped to create Putin and Putinism. The Bush II team not only presided over two unsuccessful wars, but totally broke with American tradition and cut taxes instead of raising them to pay for those wars, weakening our balance sheet. The planning for both wars was abysmal, their execution worse and too many of our “allies” proved to be corrupt or used our presence to prosecute old feuds.
Anyone who thinks that the American people didn’t notice all this, please raise your hand. As someone who wanted us to partner with Iraqis to try to build a democracy there — in the heart of the Arab world after 9/11 — I sure noticed, and I learned several things: Where we have real partners, who share our basic values and are ready to fight for them themselves — like the Kurds, who have built an island of decency that is the great unsung success story of the Iraq war — limited U.S. help can go a long way. Indeed, has anyone noticed that the two biggest reform successes in the Muslim Middle East today — Tunisia and Kurdistan — are places where our recent involvement was nil. They wanted it, and they built it.
But where our allies are either too few or too divided — Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq — it requires deeper and longer U.S. involvement on the ground to midwife a new order than most Americans will tolerate. And to pretend that we can intervene on the cheap or just from the air is nonsense (look at Libya) and to pretend that Mr. Obama’s wariness is just because he’s a sissy community organizer is also nonsense.
Most presidents make their name in foreign policy by taking on strong enemies, but most of what threatens global stability today are crumbling states. Exactly how many can we rescue at one time? I’d love to help Ukrainian reformers build a functioning democracy, but the reason that is so daunting a task is because their own politicians wasted two decades looting their own country, so the leverage required to foster change — $30 billion in bailout funds — is now massive.
We need to counterbalance China in the Asia-Pacific region, but that is not easy when we owe Beijing nearly $1.3 trillion, because of our credit-fueled profligacy. I am all for resisting Mr. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, but it is hard to weaken this petro-dictator without a national energy policy of our own that will bring down the price of oil and create alternatives.
It is true that Mr. Obama could do more to “lead” the Europeans on Ukraine, but it is also true that Gerhard Schroeder, the former chancellor of Germany, today sits on the board of a giant Russian oil company. Think about that. Europeans don’t want to take on Mr. Putin. Our biggest problem, though, is not Europe or Mr. Obama. Our biggest problem is us and our own political paralysis.
The world takes America seriously when they see us doing big hard things together — when we lead by example. If we want to do more nation-building abroad, then we have to come together on a plan to do more nation-building at home first — including infrastructure investment, replacing income and corporate taxes with a carbon tax, a major new push for both energy efficiency and properly extracted natural gas, skill-building and immigration reform and gradual long-term fiscal rebalancing. That’s how we build our muscle and weaken Mr. Putin’s.
What is most scary to me about the world today is the fact that we are doing neither smart nation-building abroad to make the world more stable nor smart nation-building at home to make America more resilient and strong. We need both to be safe.
We need more leverage from nation-building at home to have the staying power to lift others, but we also need those foreigners to provide a solid, unified foundation so our leverage can work. It’s hard to replace a flat tire when your jack is broken or is sitting on quicksand. This is not just about Mr. Obama.
Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.