Global Politics

Obama is still defensive about his foreign policy strategy, six years on

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

US President Barack Obama hands a diploma to a graduate during a commencement ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, May 28, 2014. Obama used the speech to explain his vision of US foreign policy.

President Barack Obama made q big foreign policy speech Wednesday at West Point.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

The president's main points were broad. He said America must continue to be a global leader. But he also stressed that leadership doesn't mean always using military power.

"US military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance," Obama said. "Just because we have the best hammer, does not mean that every problem is a nail."

That seemed like Obama's response to those critics who say his foreign policy is indecisive and weak. For Politico editor Susan Glasser, the speech showed that Obama still feels the need to clarify a few things. “He’s still making the case for his foreign policy as being a ‘not George W. Bush’s foreign policy,’” she says. “And it’s a very strong case that he laid out at West Point today that it’s time to move on from the wars of the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

It’s something the majority of Americans support. We’re a war-weary nation. But people across the globe say they’ve lost confidence with Obama’s foreign policy and his ability to keep promises. The phrase “red line” — as in Syria using chemical weapons would be met with swift and strong American reaction — is just one example. Red lines were not mentioned at all in his speech.

Glasser says a few weeks ago Obama made a comment in Asia that relates to such criticism. Obama stated his foreign policy aim is to do no harm. Obama went into a baseball analogy of wanting to hit singles and doubles and get on base — instead of swinging for the fences because, often times, you strike out. Obama’s intention, according to Glasser, was to show a smart “Moneyball” approach to foreign policy. It didn’t go over well. “Most saw it as a sign of his restricted ambitions,” she says.

On Wednesday, though, Obama did make a point of reaffirming his position on US superiority.

“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” he said.

Glasser says such talk comes from Obama taking heat during the 2012 campaign for saying he believes in US exceptionalism like the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. People took it as him saying the US didn’t have a special history and special mission and destiny to bring democracy to the rest of the world. “So he spent the last several years, more or less, apologizing and falling all over himself in the effort to assure people that, ‘No, really I think America is great,’” she says. “It’s kind of a silly argument.”

Glasser thinks the more revealing thing about Obama’s foreign policy speeches is that he sees the world as it is. It’s a realist view of the world. She says Obama won’t charge off on democratization efforts if the odds aren’t in the favor of the US.

What to make of the speech? Well, Glasser says part of it was indeed meant as an answer to his critics. But she says it was also a chance for Obama to lay out his big accomplishment in foreign policy, at least in his mind. He’s ending two old wars. And he’s not starting any new ones.

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