Obama: On Hitting Home Runs

President Barack Obama stands next to Lt. General Robert Caslen before giving the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28, 2014.

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

President Barack Obama stands next to Lt. General Robert Caslen before giving the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28, 2014.

 

President Barack Obama has taken some heat lately for talking about hitting “singles” and “doubles” in the game of foreign policy.

In addressing the array of challenges the U.S. faces on foreign fronts, Obama has spoken of the incremental gains made with a variety of approaches to specific problems, such as the Russian incursion in Ukraine.

“That may not always be sexy,” Obama told reporters during a press conference in the Philippines as he crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean at the end of April. “That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors.

“You hit singles, you hit doubles,” Obama said then. “Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.  But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

His harshest critics pounced — Maureen Dowd of the New York Times asking: “Is Barry Whiffing?’In her column the day afterward, Dowd wrote:What happened to crushing it and swinging for the fences? Where have you gone, Babe Ruth?”

“You know, the comment I made about singles and doubles, I think is – is only a partial quote,” Obama said in an interview aired today by National Public Radio following the president’s address on national security and foreign policy yesterday at the commencement ceremony for West Point’s Class of 2014.

“What I said was that when it comes to foreign policy, that oftentimes the United States has made mistakes not by showing too much restraint but by underestimating how challenging the environment is out there, not thinking through consequences, that there is a lot of blocking and tackling to foreign policy,” Obama told interviewer Steve Inskeep for NPR’s “Morning Edition. ”

“To change sports metaphors, or, if you want to stick to baseball,” Obama said, “… a lot of what you want to do is to advance the ball on human rights, advance the ball on national security, advance the ball on energy independence, to put the ball in play.”

Today, after the president attempted to enunciate the tenets of the foreign policy underlying his actions — or in some cases restraint from action — in theaters ranging from Ukraine to Syria, from Egypt to Burma and from the South China Sea to North Africa — criticism of the address he delivered at West Point is ranging from bewilderment to denunciation.

In short, as the headline across the screen on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” asked this morning, what is the “Definition of the Doctrine?” John Bolton, the neocon from the Bush administration turned FOX News commentator claims in the Wall Street Journal that Obama is “Doubling Down on a Muddled Foreign Policy.”  The editors at Bloomberg View speak of “Obama’s Mushy Foreign Policy.” For all the president’s talk of engaging “beyond our boundaries,” The Washington Post’s editors say the president has “retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies.”

Obama was asked to explain it all in a sentence, in that interview broadcast by NPR today.

“I’m not sure I can do it in a sentence because we’re fortunate in many ways,” Obama said. “We don’t face an existential crisis.  We don’t face a civil war.  We don’t face a Soviet Union that is trying to rally a bloc of countries and that could threaten our way of life… But we have a world order that is changing very rapidly and that can generate diffuse threats, all of which we have to deal with.

“And I think that the most important point of the speech today for me is how we define American leadership in part is through our military might, but only in part, that American leadership in the 21st  Century is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively, and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well.”

Might that elusive single sentence include avoidance of war?

“Well, there are going to be times where we might have to go to war,” the president told his interviewer. “And that’s why I think it’s very important for us not to get into these simplistic ways of thinking about it, either we pull back entirely and we’re isolationist, or alternatively, every problem around the world is ours to manage.  Rather, you know, what we have to do is clearly define where is it in our national interests to use military force, sometimes unilaterally.  And typically when we have direct interests, core interests, our safety, our security, our livelihoods, the protection of our allies, you know, international opinion matters, but we may have to act on our own.”

In that trip across the Pacific last month, Obama continually spoke of the one place he wasn’t actually visiting, China. He was asked in the NPR interview if the U.S. has an interest in “preventing China from dominating East Asia.”

“We do not have an interest in stopping China from becoming successful,” Obama said. “China is the most populous country on Earth… At some level, they’re going to be a big dog in that neighborhood, and we welcome China’s peaceful rise…

“We have a very specific concern when China is not following basic international norms, basic rules of the road, where it does not feel bound by the kind of international practices that have helped to underwrite China’s rise…  There are basic principles that big countries don’t just push little countries around by virtue of size.”

“We’re not interested in containing it because we are in any way intimidated by China,” he said. “We’re concerned about it because we don’t want to see constant conflicts developing in a vital region of the world that also, you know, we depend on in terms of our economy being successful.”

What may be missing from those words is what critics have found wanting in the president’s broader address on foreign policy: The explicit strategy.

In his address at West Point, and again in the interview following it, the president appeared to be taking a muted victory lap of sorts on the question of Ukraine: He noted that the embattled nation has elected a new president, and that Russia is withdrawing its troops from the border — signs, he said, that the U.S. alliance with European leaders on sanctions against Russia has had its effect. The loss of Crimea is the notable exception to that success.

What are Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to “take away” from the president’s West Point address, Inskeep asked.

“I think they can take away from it that they have to be on guard when they act outside of international norms, that we are going to push aggressively against them,” Obama said. “We’re not always going to push using military actions initially.  There may be circumstances in which we mobilize in the international community to take international action… And that’s an application of American leadership that is sustainable, consistent and is most likely to produce the kinds of results we want.”

Something short of a home run, perhaps — maybe a triple?

And that single sentence which the president avoided voicing in this interview may be found within the very speech he delivered to a new generation of Army officers preparing to take charge in the U.S.’s emerging post-war era.

`Just because we have the best hammer,” the president told his audience at West Point, and the world, “does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

 

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