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Obama chooses to talk strong and carry a small stick

REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
The fact is, Obama has chosen a path of restraint and nonmilitary intervention, regardless of the criticism he may face.

Reversing the advice of Teddy Roosevelt (“talk softly and carry a big stick”) President Barack Obama has elected to offer tough talk in recent international crisis — and carry a small stick. And while that has generated criticism, it is a policy that is appropriate for the times, and one most Americans seem to support.

The fact is, Americans have had their fill of misguided wars and fruitless military interventions dating back decades — at least to Vietnam. Obama has essentially said: “Enough.”

And in many ways, it is a tough sell. To begin with, Obama is under constant pressure from those who want us to be more activist in Syria and Iran, and to remain in Afghanistan. Clearly, he is riding a losing horse with the neocons, who will scorch him when the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, as they likely will. As we found in Vietnam, and now to some extent in Iraq, the indigenous folks who live there will be there for eons after we have left, and most likely their fratricidal battles will continue. Current body counts in Iraq are all over the board, but the United Nations reported that about 9,000 civilians were killed in Iraq in 2013; or about 24 deaths per day — mostly from various types of bombs. More recently, many on the right have criticized Obama’s failure to protect Crimea, and his actions in the Ukraine crisis.

Regarding Afghanistan, Obama’s tough talk dealing with President Hamid Karzai is not having much effect, but his little stick is. He has committed, and is continuing, to remove all our troops from that country by the end of 2014. Count on a reprise of Iraq in that country too — but the course Obama has chosen to follow is the right one for our country now, Karzai  notwithstanding. We are exhausted from managing too many wars in recent years; we are devoid of treasure to operate those wars; and we have sacrificed too much blood already in what history will likely show were mostly useless efforts.

Resisting hawks on Syria, Crimea …

In Syria, again Obama has talked tough, but carried a small stick. But to his credit he has kept us out of a massively confusing and incomprehensible civil war, tragic as it is. He has resisted the efforts of hawks like Sen. John McCain and others to get involved militarily. Additionally, his mandate to remove chemical weapons appears to have met with success.

Similarly, in dealing with Vladimir Putin in Crimea and now Ukraine, the same strategy is being used. It may be frustrating to some, but for most Obama has acted rationally, choosing the least bad option. A hot war with Russia is simply not going to happen. Staying the course without military involvement may be reaping rewards. And as regards Iran, getting entangled there would be a disaster. Instead, again, Obama has chosen the tough-talk approach. And while it may have the appearance of weakness, it is not without bite.

The main tool Obama has used for his tough talk is sanctions. While there are varying views of the effect of such a strategy, the fact is that when properly applied, and with international support, they work. They have destroyed Iran’s economy to the extent that leaders have at least come to the table to talk. Obviously they would not, and did not, do that with the threat of war. As for Putin, there is no question that even the limited sanctions applied now have wreaked havoc on the Russian economy, investments and the ruble. Further sanctions, if done in concert with the EU, could devastate the Russian aggression without a shot being fired.

World knows who has the power

As for displaying weakness, the world knows for certain who is the major military power on the globe — and we are because we spend massive amounts of money on our military. Indeed we spend more than the next 11 countries combined (most are friends of the United States). So that now becomes another advantage of the Obama approach: the possibility of reducing both our military budget and our deficit. Ironically, the hawks who call for more military engagement are the same folks who call for reducing our budget. Having it both ways doesn’t work.

It is estimated that Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already cost us over $1.3 trillion with more yet to come. Tough talk is much cheaper than building a bigger stick. The reality is the “stick” we have now will protect us in virtually any conventional war to which we may be exposed. But the Obama strategy is also a recognition of the new kinds of wars — and adversaries — we now face and will face in the future. And these are wars of ideology more than territory, and they will require a much different kind of defense and force than those we have built and employed in the past.

Those who do not approve of Obama will try to characterize his strategy as confusing, weak, tentative or leaderless; they may score some points on those issues. But the fact is, Obama has chosen a path of restraint and nonmilitary intervention, regardless of the criticism he may face. To his credit, he has stayed the course. And for America, at this time and this place, it is the path that will serve us best.

Teddy Roosevelt may be turning over in his grave, but for now, “talking tough and carrying a little stick” is best for our country.

Myles Spicer, formerly of Minnetonka, lives in Palm Desert, Calif. He spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/30/2014 - 06:47 am.

    Gross underestimate of costs implied in this column

    Although it’s true that the down payment, the costs to this point, are just a little over $2 trillion, the ultimate cost will be more like $6 trillion, according to the Kennedy School at Harvard. This is in part due to the “long tail” of the cost of care for the veterans of these wars. Disability spending on World War I veterans hit its peak in 1969, and spending on World War II veterans was at its highest in the late 1980s.

    Another estimate: nearly $4 trillion, according to the Brown University Watson Institute for International Studies’ “Costs of War” project, which also estimates 330,000 deaths are directly attributable to the Iraq/Afghanistan adventure.

    It would be no surprise if the same folks who are loathe to admit these real costs today seek to avoid them in future – say, in the spirit of deficit reduction.

  2. Submitted by Mike Downing on 04/30/2014 - 11:06 am.

    Talk less…

    President Obama believes his problems, our country’s problems and the world’s problems can all be fixed with another speech. Americans and the world have become weary of President Obama’s speeches without any action.

    Perhaps President Obama should talk less since he carries a little stick…

    • Submitted by jason myron on 04/30/2014 - 08:04 pm.

      Neocons shouldn’t be

      attempting to make jokes about anatomical shortcomings….the irony is too thick. Perhaps you would prefer carpet bombing? Maybe ramp up the Cold War like the good old days of Ronnie Reagan? It’s 2014, time to come to grips with the fact that nuclear standoffs in the 21st century are passe. Obama is hitting Putin in the pocketbook, which is the only viable, sensible option. You have zero knowledge of what the world thinks of Obama past whatever nonsense Bill Kristol or Breitbart is spewing this week. Just admit, if Obama ramped up militarily, you’d be calling him a warmonger. For now, in your world, he’s an appeaser. Either way, the rest of know that it’s just another example of Obama Derangement Syndrome.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/30/2014 - 11:26 am.

    strong talk?

    “ I will have more flexibly after the election.”

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/30/2014 - 08:04 pm.


    It is hard to understand the author’s logic – and that is putting it mildly. So one should scream and yell and threaten and then do nothing? Has Mr. Spicer ever had kids? And if that doesn’t work with kids, why would it work with…. anyone? If one threatens and then does nothing, the only outcome is that no one takes the threat seriously. It is the self-evident truth learned through millennia of history.

    This article actually shows how pathetic Obama’s international policy has become. The world knows who has the power – and it is not the one screaming louder than others. If a country is not willing to use its power, it doesn’t matter anymore. A good team with no willpower to fight will inevitably lose.

  5. Submitted by Michael Hess on 04/30/2014 - 09:05 pm.

    Don’t cross that Red Line? Well, Ok I guess.

    The world seems to be slowly (or quickly depending on your location) spinning out of control and conflict after conflict seems to dig in and fester. The Presidents ultimatums and diplomacy have had little impact. I think the author gives way to much credit for the current state of foreign affairs to the administration as though it was some kind of long term game plan vs fallout from a failing policy approach.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/01/2014 - 07:52 am.

    Neo-con impotence

    Well, the logic of overcompensation always cuts against those who brag about their military prowess and demand more action. The neo-cons have been embarassing themselves and disgracing themselves with their constant attacks on Obama.

    The problem with neo-con militarism is that ultimately in many case these military adventures weaken rather than strengthen the nation and our foreign policy influence. Viet Nam, Somalia, the dirty wars of Central and South America, and of course the last Iraq war left us with damaged legacies, strained international relations, and discredited policies. All over the world nations and even whole regions are building work-arounds regarding the United States rather than looking towards the US for leadership. Another stupid bombing campaign will only discredit our leadership more. The fact that Obama’s application of a modicum of intelligence provokes so much hostility amongst our neo-cons simply reveals the intellectual vacuum that has become the bedrock of their “values”. The logic of reviving the Cold War is self evidently bankrupt.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/01/2014 - 07:42 pm.

    Apples and oranges

    Mr. Udstrand referred to “another stupid bombing campaign.” I wonder if he meant bombing Libya…

    And when will people learn to compare apples to apples: War in Iraq was over in a few months and was a success; building democracy there was not but it is completely different from the war…

    And of course the logic of the Cold War is over now – Obama just lets Putin have what he wants.

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