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Obama’s Confused Foreign Policy

If there is one point that President Obama’s defenders have made in favor of his muddled Syria policy, it is its popularity. Not so fast. A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds “that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria.”

Moreover, Americans aren’t happy with Obama’s foreign policy in general: “Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved. The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.”

With his mishandling of Syria, Obama appears to have thrown away, at least for now, the foreign-policy advantage he had wrested away from Republicans largely with the SEAL raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

I have previously written that presidents must not make foreign-policy decisions based on public opinion polls, so simply because the public thinks the Obama administration’s foreign policy is wrong doesn’t necessarily make it so. But in this case I think the public is onto something. What the public perceives–the same thing that much of the world perceives–is that Obama is weak and vacillating, deliberative but indecisive.

Obama’s plan to launch cruise missiles against Syria may not have been particularly popular, but pretty much everyone is still dismayed to see a president lay down a “red line” and then not enforce it. Instead, the president has grabbed a face-saving but probably unenforceable deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons while making a de facto commitment to keep the murderous Bashar Assad regime in power.

Obama’s defenders claimed that his flexibility on Syria would encourage a deal with Iran, but he was stiffed at the UN where Hassan Rouhani delivered a hardline speech and then refused to attend a luncheon where he might have shaken Obama’s hand–a handshake that the White House fervently desired. Administration insiders pooh-poohed this small defeat, explaining that Rouhani has to cater to his own domestic opinion and can’t be seen as being too eager to reach out to the United States. But if that’s the case–if Rouhani can’t even risk a handshake with Obama–what makes Obama think he will sign off on some kind of grand bargain that will force Iran to renounce its long-held goal of acquiring nuclear weapons? The general public is actually more realistic than the White House on the prospect of better relations with Iran: “Fewer than 1 in 4 think they will get better in the next few years, while a third think they will get worse, and 4 in 10 think they will stay about the same.”

Ironically, in pursuit of chimerical results in the Middle East, Obama has abandoned his long-standing desire to “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Pacific. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group counted the number of time that in his UN speech Obama mentioned the following countries:

Iran 25
Syria 20
Israel 15
Palestine 11

Compare this with mentions of Asian countries:

China 1
Japan 0
India 0
Koreas 0

The focus on the Middle East isn’t wrong–I have long been skeptical of Obama’s professed desire to disengage from the region. But the fact that he is ignoring East Asia, something he attacked his predecessor for doing, is yet another sign of how confused his foreign policy has become. That’s something that Americans instinctively understand even if they don’t follow every nuance of foreign policy.


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