Bromund: Obama's furious battle against straw men

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 17, 2014. (Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite)

Earlier last week, White House correspondent Ed Henry of Fox News had the temerity to ask President Barack Obama if he could summarize his foreign policy for the benefit of his critics, who think it comes down to "weariness." The president's defensive reply showed, yet again, his love of fighting straw men.

Obama answered that "most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures." Translation: if you disagree with him, you're just a warmonger. The president has a wonderful gift for presenting himself as above the political fray while simultaneously insulting his opponents, but his rhetoric isn't reality.

He made the "reset with Russia" a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Did this make Russia's occupation of Crimea more or less likely? We cannot read Vladimir Putin's mind, but nothing about Obama's policy since 2009 is likely to have deterred Putin from making his move. Or take Obama's outreach to Iran. When he dismissed the 2009 protests against the regime, did that embolden or discourage Tehran? We can't know how the mullahs think, but now that they tried to send a terrorist as their ambassador to the UN, the answer seems clear.

Or consider Obama's Syria policy. When he said that Assad had to go, and then backed into a deal on Syria's chemical weapons that relies on keeping Assad in power, did that reassure America's allies? Or did it make them ask whether the United States would run away when they were in trouble?

And then there is Afghanistan. That used to be the good war (Iraq being the bad one, as Obama emphasized yet again.) But as Robert Gates' memoirs make clear, Obama was never committed to the fight: he just wanted to get out. Will that deter or encourage al-Qaida?

Obama claimed his job was to use force "as a last resort." Saying that is like playing poker by showing your hole cards. If our adversaries know the president does not want to use force, they will ensure that the last resort never arrives.

Like Putin, they will salami-slice their victims: each cut isn't large, but they add up. Or like Iran, they will show just enough leg in negotiations to offer a bit of hope, while conceding nothing. Or like China, they will intimidate their neighbors, while never doing anything unbearably provocative.

Obama uses the word deterrence, but he has no interest in the concept. For him, policy is binary: there is his supposedly reasonable approach, and there is everyone else who is just itching to bomb everything. From his remarks, you'd think that Mitt Romney is the one launching the drone attacks.

But Obama is fighting straw men. He believes in leadership from behind, which is not leadership. But he also sees the polls, like last week's NBC/Wall Street Journal survey that ranked his foreign policy approval rating at 38 percent. His way out of that trap is to use the rhetorical trick of calling anyone who disagrees with him a warmonger. But we can go beyond his sanctions on Russia without going to war. And far from loving war, critics want to prevent it by making it clear to regimes like Russia and Iran that we'll defend our allies and interests. By encouraging autocratic regimes to take chances, Obama risks encouraging wars.

Great speakers and leaders, such as Winston Churchill, have understood this. In condemning the 1938 Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany, Churchill said he wanted neither submission nor immediate war. He wanted an alliance of democratic nations to deter Adolf Hitler, which gave "a hope not only of peace but of justice." In our time as in Churchill's, that middle course is the course of wisdom.

Ted R. Bromund is senior research analyst in The Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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