Obama’s Imaginary Foreign Policy ‘Caution’ By Peter Hart

22 March 29014 — FAIR Blog

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Obama’s tripling of troops in Afghanistan is downplayed because it doesn’t fit the narrative. (cc photo: US Army/ Michael Casteel)

Given that elite media consider Sen. John McCain’s foreign policy opinions worthy of serious attention, it’s not surprising that the critique of Obama from the right–that he hasn’t used, or threatened to use, military force often enough–is considered the rational basis for a news article. 

Consider this David Sanger piece in the New York Times (3/16/14), headlined “Global Crises Put Obama’s Strategy of Caution to the Test.” The set up was familiar: 

In his first term, the White House described its approach as the “light footprint”: “Dumb wars” of occupation–how Mr. Obama once termed Iraq–were out. Drone strikes, cyberattacks and Special Operations raids that made use of America’s technological superiority were the new, quick-and-dirty expression of military and covert power. 

But now, events in Syria and Ukraine are exposing weakness: “America’s adversaries are testing the limits of America’s post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan moment.” Sanger notes that the “most stinging critique of Mr. Obama is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of nonintervention,” and he cites the assessment of  former Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice: 

There was a view that if the United States pulled back and stopped “imposing” and “insisting” in the world, the vacuum would be filled by good things: the international community and the allies…. But what has filled that space has been brutal dictators; extremist forces, especially in Iraq and Syria; and nationalism.

Civilians killed in 2009 in Narang, Afghanistan (cc photo: RAWA)

The victims of Obama’s foreign policy might disagree that it’s been too cautious. (cc photo: RAWA)

As we’ve noted before here (FAIR Blog, 7/16/13), this quick history of Obama’s “noninterventionist” foreign policy requires one to ignore or severely downplay some inconvenient facts. As FAIR’s Jim Naureckas pointed out (FAIR Blog, 8/30/13): 

Since 2009, US drone strikes have killed more than 2,000 people in Pakistan, including 240 civilians, 62 of them children. Since Obama took office, they’ve killed more than 400 in Yemen; drone deaths in Somalia are harder to quantify.

Obama roughly tripled the number of US troops in Afghanistan, from 33,000 to 98,000 (Think Progress6/22/11). In 2011, he sent naval and air forces into battle to overthrow the government of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi. In Iraq, Obama tried and failed to keep tens of thousands of troops in the country beyond the withdrawal deadline negotiated by the Bush administration (New York Times10/22/11).

The kind of analysis Sanger is offering downplays the escalation of the Afghan War–a “dumb war of occupation,” one might say–because it fails to fit into the narrative. And while US-led Libya airstrikes toppled the Gaddhafi regime–Sanger characterizes this as Obama reluctantly “agree[ing] to have American forces join the bombing of Libya in 2011″–it would be difficult to argue the outcome so far has been much better than disastrous

And then there’s the constant grind of US drone wars–often ignored by US media, as Rania Khalek (Dispatches From the Underclass, 3/17/14) notes about the drone strikes in Yemen this month. 
Sanger notes that “Mr. Obama’s critics, seeing political advantage, argue that the world smells weakness”–a viewpoint he fleshes out with a quote from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. But politicians like Graham derive a substantial “political advantage” from a media system that advances their worldview by mischaracterizing Obama’s foreign policy record–and which fails to adequately criticize the records of politicians like Graham and McCain, whose reflexive hawkishness is rarely (if ever) treated as if it demonstrates weakness, despite its disastrous consequences.

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