Hiatt: Obama swings for first base on foreign policy

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Why is everyone piling on President Obama’s foreign policy — and how fair is the criticism?

A friend inside the administration asked me those questions last week, knowing that I’d been a critic for some time. The notion that President Obama has been too passive, for some time a minority view, seems to be gelling into conventional wisdom.

Fred Hiatt

Editor of The Post’s editorial page, Hiatt also writes a biweekly column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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Obama himself provided one spark last month when he characterized his foreign policy as one that “avoids errors.” His observation that “you hit singles, you hit doubles; everyone once in a while we may be able to hit a home run” may have been a fair description of a president’s job. But it struck many people as less ambitious than a U.S. president should be.

It came as the consequences of U.S. passivity were reaching a tipping point. Syria in ruins, China throwing its weight around the South China Sea, Russia invading Ukraine: he sum of these parts seemed greater than the arithmetic might suggest.

Meanwhile a familiar adversary took center stage. “Russia brings bad memories,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told me. “It’s something people understand.”

And Republican leaders, after several years of vacillating between isolationist Rand Paul and activist John McCain, are inclining toward internationalism. Corker, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an advocate of measured activism, said the politicians’ rebalancing reflects a shift among voters.

“The Republican base is moving to a very different place,” Corker said. “They watched the president be so ineffectual and feckless and weak — drip after drip after drip — and they finally get it. Russia is the bellwether moment when people are waking up and realizing, drip drip drip, we’ve gotten into a bad place as a nation.”

If the critique becomes partisan, you can bet it will go too far, so it’s a good moment to ask my friend’s second question: How fair is the piling-on?

Obama has not been an isolationist president. He has kept U.S. troops in Afghanistan long enough to train that country’s army and give its people a chance. He has chased al-Qaeda in Pakisan, Yemen and beyond. He is negotiating ambitious trade agreements in Asia and Europe.

But Corker is right that Obama has failed to exercise U.S. leadership at key moments — the most heartbreaking being the missed opportunity of the Arab Spring.

Think back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, another unexpected breakthrough for freedom. After a bit of hesi­ta­tion, the United States and Europe seized the moment, promising real benefits for countries that kept on the sometimes-rocky road to democracy. The West committed all the power and prestige of its alliance to that promise. It wasn’t enough to bring everyone along (see Ukraine), but millions of people from Estonia to Poland to Kosovo are better off as a result.

A quarter-century later, the self-immolation of a fruit seller in Tunisia offered a similarly unexpected, historic chance. The United States and Europe could have offered encouragement and potential rewards — trade, scholarships, investment — to nations that took the democratic course for which millions of Arabs were clamoring. Obama instead treated the moment as an unwelcome distraction from his priorities (a nuclear deal with Iran, a “pivot” to Asia), and the moment was lost.

There’s no guarantee that U.S. leadership would have delivered a better outcome, of course. There’s no guarantee that if Obama had negotiated to keep 10,000 or 20,000 troops in Iraq, he could have forestalled that nation’s tragic slide back into civil war. There’s no guarantee that early assistance to the moderate rebels in Syria would have kept that nation from becoming “the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation,” as Obama’s U.N. ambassador called it earlier this year.

But in each case, we had a shot. In each case, Obama was urged to act, and chose not to. And leaders everywhere began to draw lessons from Obama’s emphasis on “nation-building at home.” Corker said that when he met the leaders of Japan and South Korea last year they “wore me out [asking]: Are we going to be there or not?”

Corker said he doesn’t hold out much hope of a change in administration attitude.

“On foreign policy, they cannot wait until January of 2017,” he said. “All they wish to do is avoid confrontation at all costs. On every issue it’s the minimal, it’s the minimal, it’s the minimal.”

Avoiding confrontation is generally a good thing, of course, and I don’t believe mounting political criticism will prompt Obama to alter direction.

But lack of purpose and clarity in foreign policy can invite confrontation, too. As that becomes more and evident, from eastern Syria to eastern Ukraine to the South China Sea, Obama may yet realize that the minimal response is one the United States can no longer afford.

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