Foreign Policy Won't Leave Obama Alone

The president may have been elected to "nation-build" at home, but his focus keeps getting pulled abroad.

President Barack Obama waves as he walks up the stairs of Air Force One before leaving Amsterdam Airport Schiphol March 25, 2014 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (National Journal)

"Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in." Michael Corleone

Sitting in his office in Bavaria, where he runs his consultancy company, John C. Hulsman reached back to that quintessentially American film The Godfather, Part III to try to explain President Obama and foreign policy. "Michael Corleone was trying to go legitimate and complained that the life kept drawing him back in," Hulsman told National Journal this week. "That's what foreign policy has been for Obama. He can't get away from it; he can't escape it."

The crisis in Ukraine is just the latest reminder that, as many times as Obama pledges to "spend every minute of every day" working on creating jobs, no president can avoid spending a big chunk of time conducting foreign policy. For a president elected twice on a platform to "nation-build" at home and focus on unemployment, this is clearly a source of great frustration.

It is one reason the stakes were so high for Obama's trip this week to the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. More than on any recent presidential excursion, he has encountered leaders who want reassurance — reassurance that he cares about Europe, that NATO will hold together, that Washington will find the right balance of resolve and caution both in Europe and the Middle East. The need for that reassurance stems in part from the fact that the other leaders are well aware that this American president would prefer to spend his time on domestic issues.

But that's not possible when Russian troops are seizing Crimea and Bashar al-Assad is gaining an upper hand over the rebels in Syria. "We have to walk and chew gum now in a very big way," says Heather A. Conley, who was a deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs during George W. Bush's first term and now is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The foreign policy crises that are emerging here demand the president's full attention. Foreign policy can no longer be a distraction. It now has to be a focus for this president."

Perhaps never before has a president in his sixth year faced so many calls to explain his foreign policy. It is why so much attention was paid to Obama's address Wednesday at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic were watching for signs of where the president's policy will go next now that Russia has seized Crimea. "What is needed is line-drawing in an old-fashioned, Harry Truman-like way, where we acknowledge what we can do, and what we can't do, and what we're willing to do, and — critically — why," Hulsman says.

Adds Conley: "What are our goals?"

For the most part, the speech fell short of providing answers. The president offered reassurance that he will not overreact to Ukraine, acknowledging in what he called "a coldhearted calculus" that U.S. national interests are not at risk there. The closest Obama came to drawing a line was his pledge to "never waver" in defending the 27 other NATO members. Specifically, he reaffirmed the American commitment to the defense of Poland and the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

But voters — and other leaders — could not be blamed if they were to want a more robust explanation of Obama's foreign policy. This does not mean Obama doesn't have a coherent policy so much as it suggests that he has fallen short in articulating it. Hulsman, who was a respected analyst at the Heritage Foundation before moving to Germany and starting Hulsman Enterprises, believes Obama knows what he wants to accomplish but finds it too politically risky to be candid about it. "He has done an awful lot of things right," says Hulsman, a Republican. He credits the president with "winding down George W. Bush's foreign policy excesses, getting out of Iraq and out of Afghanistan, and not doing anything stupid" to get into further wars. "That is de facto realism. It is closet realism. The problem is, it is closeted. He is not telling anybody what he is doing."

Hulsman says Obama keeps it "closeted" because he is at odds with the foreign policy establishments of both parties. Republicans remain in the control of neoconservatives always itching to project American military power. And Democrats — including Obama's top foreign policy advisers — tend to be Wilsonians eager to use the American military for compassionate ends. Obama's dilemma, brought home again this week, is that he rests in neither camp. He is much more averse to the use of the military than either the neocons or the Wilsonians. But he avoids fights inside his own party by often using the rhetoric of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. Despite this, his policies tend to be more those of a realist than an activist.

Ukraine may force the president to be more open about where he stands. Already, it has forced him to pay greater attention to Europe than he did in his first term, when the emphasis was on his "pivot" to Asia. This trip itself dealt with one of the biggest grievances voiced by Europeans — his previous unwillingness to go to Brussels, considered the "capital" of Europe. No president since John Kennedy has waited so long to go there, just as no recent president has traveled less across Europe. Bill Clinton visited as many countries on the Continent — 13 — in 1994 as Obama has visited in six years. And Obama has made no secret of how much he dislikes attending summits. But now, thanks to Ukraine and an emboldened Vladimir Putin, Obama has been drawn to the summit table in Brussels. He may have thought he was out. But, like Michael Corleone, he was pulled back in.

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