For most U.S. presidents, foreign policy has been a nuisance. Most were elected not because of their prowess in foreign affairs, but because of their domestic priorities. Foreign policy issues are dangerous to domestic policy because they are often unpredictable and because often there is little the president can do about it if he intends to make major changes in domestic policy.
There have been exceptions. Richard Nixon was one. He was elected largely because he had a “secret plan” (which turned out to be neither secret nor much of a plan) to end the Vietnam War. John Kennedy did not plan on the Bay of Pigs invasion or the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet they occupied much of his time. Lyndon Johnson pushed his “Great Society,” yet his domestic agenda took a back seat to the Vietnam War. He ended up focusing almost exclusively on it, and it caused him to decide not to run for re-election.
Jimmy Carter was focused on cutting the military to save money for domestic programs. However, in November 1979, Iranian rioters seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and the next month, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, seizing Carter’s attention away from his domestic priorities.
Even Ronald Reagan found foreign policy issues constantly on his table. Lebanon and the deaths of 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers sent shock waves through the White House.
George H.W. Bush had to deal with events in Panama by sending troops to oust Manuel Noriega, whose brutal reign led to the deaths of several Americans. Bush also organized an international coalition and sent U.S. troops to kick Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Bill Clinton found himself dealing with events in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti. And then there was George W. Bush’s war with Iraq.
No president handles foreign policy threats perfectly. We don’t live in a perfect world and intelligence is seldom perfect. Consider Syria. It appears that chemical weapons were used, but who used them — President Bashar Assad or his opposition? Then there is the issue of whether and how much force the U.S. should use. Military force costs money — money that President Barack Obama is trying to take from the military and invest in social programs.
This brings me to the Middle East and North Africa. Surpris-es aside, just dealing with what we know isn’t easy. A key problem now is President Obama’s equivocation and lack of credibility.
In addition to not knowing what actually happened at Benghazi, we don’t seem to have a policy for Libya. The situation there appears going to be going from bad to worse. Our policy toward Iran is equally troubling. Obama has made clear that he will not stand for the development of nuclear weapons by the mullahs. I’ve lost track of the number of threats he’s made.
The Air Force permitted press photographs of the Massive Ord-nance Penetrator (MOP), which is being upgraded. This is the biggest conventional bomb available. It is capable of taking out Iran’s fortified nuclear sites. The photo-op’s purposes were to scare Iran and pacify Israel, which doesn’t have the MOP.
Then came Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s disclosure that the United States is rethinking arming Syrian opposition fighters because we don’t know who we would be arming: a democratic opposition or al-Qaida? This would not have been a problem if we had armed the rebels a year ago when al-Qaida forces were weaker.
Credibility is the Obama administration’s real problem, one made made worse by Obama’s “red line” warning to Syria and his subsequent inaction. The threat of U.S. force has become a joke.
Unfortunately, Obama’s refusal to follow up on his threats diminishes U.S. influence around the world. Does anyone truly believe Obama would use force against North Korea, Syria or Iran? Burying his head in the sand and ignoring the reality the United States faces will be even more costly.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.