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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