When Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008, the prominent campaign issue was an economy in free fall. The 2016 campaign may very well be dominated by debate over the state of American foreign policy, which is itself in something of a free fall.
Former secretary of state and potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made it clear in a recent interview that she intends to distance herself from the Obama administration, bluntly criticizing the White House for failing to act decisively to aid rebel forces aligned against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Such a reproach from the woman who recently served as America’s top diplomat can’t be helpful to the administration’s efforts in responding to crises from the Ukraine to the Gaza Strip. Sound policy is not forged or executed in an atmosphere of politicization. But Clinton validly questions the bedrock principles upon which our current policy is founded, or, as her comments imply, the lack of such principle.
Indeed, the Obama administration has seemed to stumble from one crisis to the next, sometimes taking contradictory postures. We stayed cautiously away from intervention in Syria, and the result has been to embolden an insurgency in neighboring Iraq, where again we have committed to intervene militarily.
The president has said, famously or infamously, that his foreign policy is based on the principle that we “shouldn’t do stupid stuff.” But there has been no overarching discussion about just what constitutes “stupid.” In fairness, the conflicts in the Middle East and in Ukraine are complex, nuanced and incendiary. Virtually any action taken in those places would be labeled wise by some and foolish by others, depending on their political or ideological orientation.
The nation is weary of ongoing military presence in the Middle East, just as it is wary of the prospect of a rebirth of the Cold War due to Russian meddling in the Ukraine. It is too early to assess how history may gauge the effectiveness of administration policy in those separate arenas. But in aggregate, the White House has clearly failed to deliver an articulate and consistent message as to what behavior by foreign entities — including its allies — that America will or will not tolerate. There is currently no bearing on the policy compass that defines a course toward either isolationism or interventionism.
Just where on that spectrum our policy should lie is not something that is easily determined, nor should it be. Each foreign crisis demands a singular response, but each response should be consistent with principles outlined in a coherent governing policy.
The 2016 elections will provide an opportunity for a national vetting of what those principles are. Clinton’s criticism of her former boss may be motivated by political strategy, but the discussion that will ensue is important and, given the current state of world affairs, not premature.