Mr. President, Simply Avoiding Mistakes Is Not a Foreign Policy 

At a time when the world needs Obama’s leadership, the president has appeared defensive, cautious and uncertain.

President Barack Obama, during a July 17, 2014, appearance at the Port of Wilmington, Del., addresses the plane crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
President Barack Obama, during a July 17, 2014, appearance at the Port of Wilmington, Del., addresses the plane crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

International crises, ranging from a Malaysia Airlines passenger flight being shot down by Russia-backed Ukrainian separatists to Israel’s escalating military intervention into Gaza, have highlighted the Obama doctrine’s political and policy limitations.

And at a time when the world is crying out for bold, decisive leadership from the White House, President Barack Obama has appeared defensive, cautious and uncertain.

This isn’t a call for pre-emptive war against Russia or more saber rattling in the Middle East. In many respects, the world needs just the opposite. Since assuming office in 2009, Obama has tried, with mixed results, to close the Pandora’s box of global hot spots triggered by 9/11 and amplified by the Bush administration’s “war of choice” in Iraq and “war of necessity” in Afghanistan.

Obama’s foreign policy goal has been, in his own off-the-cuff words, to avoid making the “stupid” missteps that plagued George W. Bush’s presidency and have continued to haunt his own.

It’s a laudable goal—in fact, a necessary one—and the current administration should take credit for bringing two international wars to an end and refusing to place ground troops in Syria and other nations that might drag the U.S. into open-ended conflict.

But simply avoiding mistakes is not a foreign policy doctrine.

Worse, it makes the administration seem weak and feckless. The sense that the president is simply reacting to each crisis as it occurs, rather than harnessing a comprehensive global strategy that accommodates the ever-changing political realities of the 21st century, is damaging Obama’s foreign policy hopes and his domestic-policy credibility.

Politics reflects both the brutal pragmatism of concrete policy and the more aspirational and visionary perceptions of a nation and its leaders. Optics matter, and the sight of Obama continuing with his scheduled itinerary last week as news of the airline tragedy broke—including attendance at a couple of fundraisers, even after announcing the Malaysian plane disaster—was a mistake. It sent the wrong signal both domestically and globally.

Just this past May, Obama delivered a major foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he argued that America’s international leadership rested not only on its military strength but also on its ability to lead by example and support and protect human dignity around the world. “Here’s my bottom line,” he said. “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will.”

Now is the time for him to put those words into action with clear and decisive leadership. In a 24-hour news cycle where even major presidential addresses are quickly discarded, Obama should forcefully reassert the way in which America’s foreign policy doctrine is capable not simply of responding to this past week’s international developments but also of taking the lead in restoring human dignity where it has been lost, including providing appropriate burials for the hundreds of victims of Flight MH17, whose bodies are only now—days later—being returned to their families.