Obama's "Values-Free" Foreign Policy

by Michael Sean Winters

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On no day have I been more relieved that I did not vote for President Barack Obama’s re-election than Wednesday when he addressed the graduating cadets at West Point. My relief is ephemeral because, without my vote, Obama still won and so was able to articulate a foreign policy perspective that explicitly places America’s interests above America’s values. Liberal ideals be damned.

On a cold January morning in 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address which contained these words: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” This articulation of liberal ideals turned out to be a large over-promising. It turned out that there were prices we were not willing to pay, burdens we were unwilling to bear, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty. But, an ideal chastened by reality remains an ideal. Obama, aware that America is war-weary, decided to demote our ideals to second class status in the evaluation of U.S. foreign policy.

The key, objectionable section of the president’s speech is contained in these paragraphs:

First, let me repeat a principle I put forward at the outset of my presidency: The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it: when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.

In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life. (Applause.)

On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.

The distinction between “core interests” and “crises that stir our conscience” is the problem. As the editors of the Washington Post pointed out, U.S. interventions in Haiti and Somalia would not make the president’s cut, but the war in Iraq, which was authorized by a vote of the United Nations and enlisted troops from other countries, would.

The proper place to draw a distinction about the unilateral use of U.S. force is on the determination of its efficacy. The problem with the Iraq war, whether it was unilateral or multilateral, was that while it was easy to remove a tyrant, U.S. military intervention is a woefully inappropriate means for advancing democracy in a country that has never known it. (Of course, there were other problems, like the various misinformation campaigns still defend by Dick Cheney.) On the other hand, the U.S. military intervention in Bosnia was very effective at stopping the genocide in that country and as even President Bill Clinton now acknowledges, it was a large, and deadly, mistake not to use U.S. forces to halt the genocide in Rwanda. Under Obama’s “values-free” analysis, Rwanda would not warrant intervention because it is not sitting on a ton of oil or astride sea lanes.

There is much else to commend in the president’s speech and in his policies. Of course, we should pay more attention to, and become better at deploying, non-military assets. Of course, diplomacy and sanctions can sometimes do a better job of achieving our objectives than sending in the Marines. Of course, our efforts to combat terrorism must become more supple and effective. I disagree with the president’s call for transparency. Next Friday, President Obama will commemorate the landing on the Normandy beaches. Thank God Churchill and Roosevelt understood, as Churchill once pithily put it, that “in war, truth is such a valuable commodity, she must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.” One of the keys to the success of the D-Day landings was the deceits perpetrated upon friend and foe alike to lead the Germans to think we were landing at the Pas de Calais. Hitler’s Panzer’s sat inactive for critical hours until he became convinced that the Normandy landings were not a feint. If President Obama wishes to perform a profile in courage, he could explain to the nation the need for secrecy in the struggle against terrorism.  

It is true that Americans are war-weary. Upon reading the president’s speech, I entertained the remembrance of FDR, unwilling to bring America into World War II until we were attacked. He had a keen sense of American public opinion and, although historians debate the point, I think the weight of opinion holds that FDR correctly understood that the kind of war effort that would be required to defeat the armed might of the Nazis was so great, only a united public support for the war would suffice. Perhaps, President Obama is taking a page from the FDR playbook and correctly gauging public opinion. But, the thought requires an analogy that does not hold up: Barack Obama is no FDR.

American foreign policy should never be hawkish. We should always prefer non-violent means to resolve conflicts in the world. But, it is offense against liberal ideals and our basic moral fabric to state, as a matter of policy, that we are prepared to take unilateral action to defend international trade by unwilling to take such action to defend defenseless innocents who have the misfortune of living in those parts of the world that lack strategic value. It is offensive to think that our alliance with Israel or with the UK is based on something other than shared values. And, it is foolish to invite every petty dictator in those lands like Rwanda or Haiti that lack strategic significance, to do whatever inhumane cruelties they want, and that America would rather sit on our hands, or yack endlessly at the UN, than take quick, effective action to defend and protect innocent human lives. Realism requires that we calculate ends and means. It does not require that we segregate values from interests and pledge ourselves to a values-free foreign policy.

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