Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Obama’s “Smart Power,” Not So Smart

So this is what “smart power” means, at least in this administration. The term was coined by Harvard’s Joe Nye, who used to it describe an ideal policy blend combining “hard power” with “soft power” (another, more memorable Nye coinage). But of course what’s “smart” to one person may not look so smart to others. “Smart power” is what you make of it.

In the case of Secretary of State Clinton she seems to be making it an excuse for inaction. How else to interpret her claim that the administration policies in Libya and Syria exemplify, you guessed it, “smart power”. The AP reports:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended the U.S. response to crises in Libya and Syria on Tuesday, saying the Obama administration is projecting “smart power” by refusing to act alone or with brute force to stop autocratic repression in the two countries….

“It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go,” she said. “Okay, fine, what’s next? If other people say it, if Turkey says it, if (Saudi) King Abdullah says it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”

“I think this is smart power, where it is not just brute force, it is not just unilateralism,” she said. “It is being smart enough to say you know what we want a bunch of people signing out of the same hymn book and we want them singing a song of universal freedom, human rights, democracy, everything that we have stood for and pioneered over 235 years.”

Really? It wouldn’t be news if the U.S. called on Bashar Assad to go? Does she really believe that Saudi Arabia could or should have a bigger voice in Syria’s future than the world’s sole superpower?

How is it smart for the U.S. to be perceived as a bystander while the people of Syria risk their lives for “universal freedom, human rights, and democracy, everything that we have stood for and pioneered over 235 years”? And how is it “smart” to publicly call for Qaddafi’s ouster, open hostilities against his regime, but commit so few resources that he can hang on for month after month?

The policies Clinton is defending (at least publicly; I bet privately she’s not so happy with the administration’s direction) could more accurately be described as the “lead from behind” doctrine rather than “smart power.” In fact there’s nothing smart about the president’s perceived passivity in the face of crises that offer the U.S. a chance to help reshape the Middle East more in line with the ideals “we have stood for and pioneered.”