In the last few months, President Barack Obama has come under fire by members of both parties regarding what many see as a passive approach to significant world events. Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) reign of terror in the Middle East had little immediate effect on the president’s foreign policy. On August 28, months after the surge of ISIL and over a week after the beheading of American journalist James Foley, Obama drew intense criticism when he stood in front of members of the press and said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Obama has been reluctant to use any sort of rhetoric that could be misconstrued as bellicose when dealing with both Russia and ISIL. After our long periods of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is understandable that the president would try to proceed with caution.
However, proceeding with caution and proceeding with a lack of conviction or clear objectives are two very different approaches. President Obama’s aversion to realpolitik is, in theory, admirable. In a perfect world, we would all like to achieve peace through diplomacy. However, the situation we are living is far from a utopia. When dealing with groups such as ISIL that seek to terrorize, demonize and demoralize, it is important that we do not show hesitation or reluctance to engage. In last week’s address to the nation, Obama revealed that airstrikes would be expanded to include Syria and seemed more willing to expand American involvement. The address alluded to a more clearly delineated plan, but it is still a stretch to claim that President Obama has an overarching, cohesive foreign policy.
Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ’69 expressed her frustration with the president’s seemingly inchoate strategy. In an interview with The Atlantic last month she quipped, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
The American public needs to know that their president is prepared to make difficult decisions and step up even when he is more comfortable standing back. We would all like to avoid conflict, but sometimes situations demand action, and standing by while a terrorist group beheads American and British citizens is not the message we should be sending out into the world. Nations with a clearly outlined strategy send the message that if their sovereignty is challenged, they have plan to respond. Having a strategy in and of itself is not aggression. By haphazardly responding (or not responding) to situations that arise abroad, we have perpetuated the idea that we are not willing or ready to deal with challenges to both our security and our place on the international stage. America has always been a leader in international affairs. In an era when radical ideology seeks to undermine American interests and bring harm to Americans across the globe simply because they are American, it is inexcusable for us to stand back.
Standing by as passive observers has not worked out well in the past. American influence abroad has created its fair share of problems, but that is no reason to withdraw from the international stage, especially at such a crucial time as this. The advancement of American ideals and retention of America’s position of power on the world stage is not something that should be ascribed a negative connotation. However, advancing American ideals and ensuring the retention of our influence does not necessarily mean we should launch a full scale war effort. President Obama’s decision to expand airstrikes to Syria was a logical step. Rushing into another long-term conflict without thoroughly assessing the situation would be a mistake. What I am criticizing here is not President Obama’s response to the situation but how long it took him to respond. When a leader has an overarching plan, a clear idea of where he wants to lead his country, he is better prepared to deal with specific situations. There should be no hesitation, no ambivalence, no oscillation between doing something and watching things happen. We do not have the luxury of time.
America needs a concrete foreign policy strategy. Strategy breeds purpose — it removes any doubt that if provoked, not only will we respond promptly, but that we will have a plan to respond. Our allies need to understand that we will support them and our foes need to know that we will oppose them. Most importantly, the American people need to know that we are not stumbling around blindly on the international stage.