Obama's foreign policy reset has little to show for it

'Apology tour' emphasized America's faults, played down its strengths

October 28, 2012|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

Four years ago, a telegenic, charismatic senator from Illinois cobbled together a New Deal coalition of labor, environmentalists, progressives, African-Americans and young people to capture the presidency.

It was an exciting time. America had elected its first mixed-race president. Another glass ceiling had been broken. Even those of us who opposed his policies recognized that the election of Barack Obama conveyed a positive message about America to the world.

In D.C., a jubilant media speculated about a "post-partisan" Capitol Hill. Finally, there had emerged a political leader with the cross-party appeal to bring the partisans together in common cause. That these observers chose to neglect the hyper-partisan and hyper-progressive voting records of Sen. Barack Obama in two legislatures reflected the high expectations generated by this once-in-a-generation politician.

For American foreign policy, the election of the anti-war Senator Obama marked a new day. He had been an ardent critic of a Bush administration that had involved America in two major wars. The newly elected president repeatedly cited America's "cowboy" image as detrimental to our strategic interests around the world — most especially our image in the Muslim world.

It was with this background that the new president embarked on a new-era mission in the spring and summer of 2009. It is a tour worth reviewing now that America's standing and image around the world have become a major issue in Campaign 2012.

To review, a sampling of the president's rhetoric and tone:

•"In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America's shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive." — Strasbourg, France, April 2009

•"9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country … but in some cases it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I've ordered the prison in Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year." — Cairo, Egypt, June 2009

•"There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world … Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies." — National Archives, May 2010

Detractors have characterized these and similar quotes as markers of a "world apology tour," a reassurance to our allies (and enemies) that America had learned its lesson and would no longer be so arrogant in its dealings with other countries — and other cultures. Of course, "Gitmo" remains open for business to this day. Such was the naivete of the freshman senator from Illinois so willing to sit down with foreign miscreants "without preconditions."

Unsurprisingly, Obama supporters in the press and elsewhere have responded that at no time and in no venue did the president use the word "apology." True enough — but nevertheless, it is a weak defense for a foreign policy reset that has proudly led from behind in Libya and produced precious few tangible successes with the likes of Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, and Iran (the latter of which is oh-so-close to acquiring a nuclear weapon).

Something important was missing from the president's published texts: reminders about the considerable American blood given to save Muslim lives in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. A citation to American sacrifice in this regard would have gone a long way to mitigating the harsh criticism from the right that followed the president's tour.

None of us pretend the United States has been a perfect actor on the world stage. Strategic mistakes have been made by misguided presidents of both parties. We have experienced episodes of isolationism and nation building. And not so long ago, foreign policy makers possessed the notion that American values could be imposed on other countries and cultures.

But the world must never forget that American soldiers and resources have been regularly utilized in the pursuit of humanitarianism and peace. We deserve a president willing to make this point on foreign soil — and in front of hostile audiences.

Such is worthy of consideration as America passes judgment on Obama-era foreign policy.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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