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

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.

American leadership is also required to bring any hope of peace into a Middle East conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinians that, in recent days, has surged to spectacular violence that has resulted in hundreds of new casualties.


Obama’s efforts to “reset” America’s relationship with Russia have failed, not through any obvious missteps, but from perhaps an underestimation of President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to restore the lost Soviet empire. Obama has publicly stated that the Cold War is over. Putin, judging from recent forays in Crimea, his political support of Ukrainian separatists and the MH17 tragedy, has definitely not gotten this message.

Finally, the crisis of undocumented immigrants, including thousands of children held in camps at U.S. borders, must be part of a comprehensive foreign policy agenda that recognizes the connection between national security abroad and economic and social justice at home.


The Obama doctrine contains, intellectually, the ingredients to lead the nation into the 21st century. But the White House has, in many ways, been its own worse enemy. Instead of embracing its own policy agenda, the Obama administration has allowed its political enemies to set the perception agenda for the unfolding crises.

This is absurd. However, in the absence of bold leadership, it’s also predictable.


During his best moments, Obama has voiced a pragmatic and resolute vision for America’s place in the world. He’s laid down his vision for foreign policy in the 21st century. Now he just has to believe in it.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.


Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter