When it comes to Obama’s foreign policy, words matter

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
The United States, Obama said, must not try to “dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world.”

Words matter. Like “desire” and “need.”

Last week, the White House unveiled a 29-page document updating the Obama administration’s thinking on national security strategy. It contained such vague, anodyne, but (to me) relatively sane statements as:

“The United States will always defend our interests and uphold our commitments to allies and partners. But we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities and we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.”

To tell you the truth, I’m pretty sick of presidents using the phrase “defend our interests” without saying enough about what that means, especially since it often means killing people in foreign countries for reasons that aren’t particularly in the interests of average Americans. But the main thrust of the paragraph is mostly a restatement of Obama’s famous foreign-policy doctrine known as “don’t do stupid stuff.”

The United States, Obama said, must not try to “dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world.”

To the permanent hawk wing of the foreign- and military-policy spectrum, that may come across as just yellow-bellied reluctance to, well, to dictate the trajectory of events around the world.

Fine. Let them say so and make their case, and let journalists quote them and hold them accountable for what they say on the slight chance that the next war they stampede us into might not work out so well in the end.

But I happened to read about the new Obama administration paper in an Associated Press report in which AP White House correspondent Julie Pace didn’t call John McCain or Lindsey Graham to get that quote. Instead, she just threw in this paragraph:

“Obama’s critics have accused him of putting his desire to keep the U.S. out of overseas conflicts ahead of the need for more robust action against the world’s bad actors.” (Emphasis added.)

We see constant evidence that politicians have adopted words that have been tested to pack a punch, especially among whichever groups of voters they seek to persuade. But hard-news reporters are supposed to use plain language, designed only to inform and to avoid word choices that amount to editorializing.

So why is Obama’s reluctance to get into more conflicts a “desire” whereas the trigger-happy policy of critics is a “need” to bomb?

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/09/2015 - 09:25 am.

    Rhetorical warfare soon to begin

    “…why is Obama’s reluctance to get into more conflicts a “desire” whereas the trigger-happy policy of critics is a “need” to bomb?”

    An excellent question!

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/09/2015 - 09:46 am.

    Obama refuses to even name the group most actively working to destroy our country, I don’t think anyone realistically expects much action from him.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/09/2015 - 09:48 am.

    I’m a card-carrying member

    of the “permanent hawk wing of the foreign- and military-policy spectrum.” As we see ISIS rape and murder both Christian and Muslim civilians, including children, as they attempt to establish their caliphate, what drives our thinking is the fundamental belief that “all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

    I realize that our liberal and libertarian friends don’t agree with that, but I guess the thought of saving lives, with force if necessary, even if we don’t win the war, even at the cost of blood and treasure, is our character flaw.

    People who think like Obama are the type who would turn their back as you were getting mugged on the street. That is theirs.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/09/2015 - 03:42 pm.

      Where do we draw the line?

      Fighting evil is a good and noble thing, but needs must prioritize.

      Should we have boots on the ground in Nigeria, chasing Boko Haram? I know the right-wing of the hawk has long fantasized about war with Iran, but how about the other big one–do we send troops to preserve Ukrainian independence? For that matter, why have we suffered the current regime in North Korea as long as we have?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/09/2015 - 07:01 pm.


        Look at a map.
        Our main army bases in Europe are in Germany.
        To get supplies (and troops) from there to the Ukraine we would have to go through Poland.
        I don’t think that the Poles would welcome another war with Russia.
        And antiaircraft missile defense is a lot more sophisticated than it was in 1948. If we tried a Berlin airlift type of operation to within a hundred miles of Russian airspace it would be a disaster.
        Visualize Russia trying to invade Mexico. Logistics matter.

        As for North Korea, we’ve got troops in South Korea within 20 miles of the border. Any attempt at military action would sacrifice them. And North Korea could easily devastate South Korea and Japan.
        Better to keep NK isolated and pressure China to restrain them, to our mutual advantage.

        And them there’s the Saudi’s.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/10/2015 - 09:29 am.


          There are prices that would be too great to pay, and risks that would be too great to take.

          Reality overrides a lot of ideological concerns.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/09/2015 - 05:48 pm.

      There is no doubt

      that ISIL embodies the worst of man at war. What would you have the U.S. do that it is not already doing, Mr. Tester? Apparently, you’re willing to send our young men and women off to war once again, “even if we don’t win the war”. To what end, if it will not eliminate the threat of ISIL?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/09/2015 - 08:23 pm.


        The various Islamic militants don’t have to come here to attack us — we make it easy by coming to them.
        Playing on someone else’s home court is always a losing game.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/10/2015 - 02:41 pm.

        Of course, we wouldn’t have had to send people back if Obama hadn’t prematurely pulled out of Iraq in the first place. ISIS grew in the vacuum Obama created.

        • Submitted by Tom Clark on 02/10/2015 - 02:58 pm.

          You mean the “surge” didn’t work?

          I’m reminded of the old George Carlin joke about prematurely pulling out, in this case of Vietnam:

          “But they’re always afraid of pulling out. That’s their big problem, y’know? Pull out? Doesn’t sound manly to me, Bill. I say leave it in there and get the job done! Cause that is, after all, what we’re doing to that country, right?”

          If the solution is never leaving, then it’s no solution at all. As I knew way back in 2002, kicking Saddam Hussein out of power was going to open a huge can of worms regarding the unity of Iraq, given the bitter sectarian divide, the Kurd’s desire for independence, and the weakness of other governments in the immediate region to deal with the likes of ISIS, which didn’t start in Iraq but in Syria. Scott Walker can blithely talk about “doing what it takes” in Iraq and Syria, but he’s just blowing smoke.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/10/2015 - 03:19 pm.

          “Prematurely pulled out”

          Withdrawal was in accordance with the timetable agreed to by George W. Bush. There was no legal justification for the US to stay after that. With or without your leave, the agreement is the law of the land.

        • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/10/2015 - 09:38 pm.

          Of course

          And if Bush and Cheney hadn’t started a completely unneccessary and counterproductive war in the first place, it wouldn’t even be an issue. The withdrawal was premature only in the sense that a US presence was never going to bring a resolution to a longstanding sectarian conflict. The adults in the Obama administration understood this and did what they could to clean up the mess left by the children in the last administration. ISIS is just another part of the legacy of Bush and Cheney.

    • Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 02/09/2015 - 07:31 pm.

      Old arguments repurposed

      You know, I’m old enough to remember those exact arguments being used to draw us ever deeper into the quagmire of Viet Nam. “They are crying out for our help!” Didn’t actually turn out that way, though, did it. Have we learned nothing?

  4. Submitted by Bill Toppson on 02/09/2015 - 10:28 pm.

    I see the statement- “right wing of the hawk”.

    I see the statement- “right wing of the hawk” in a comment above. I am not sure what that was intended to mean but I would like to balance that with the “left wing of the hawk’. Hillary Clinton’s famous war speech on the floor of the Senate October 2002 while voting for going to war.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/10/2015 - 11:43 am.


      What is your point? The inevitable, but still irrelevant, “both sides do it?”

      For the record: Her vote on the Iraq war was why many of us decided to support Obama over Hilary Clinton in 2008.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/09/2015 - 11:40 pm.


    So Obama said that “The United States will always defend our interests and uphold our commitments to allies and partners. But …we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.” I wonder if there is some fear of terrorism in general and of ISIS in particular in America. If there is not, we may relax and stop bombing them… but if there is, we must start resisting the over-reach of bombing them. Remember, we have to do it ALWAYS… which means that we cannot defend ourselves and our allies which, it seems, we also will ALWAYS be doing… Somewhere there is a contradiction in what Obama said…

    I also wonder if Chamberlain in 1938 was resisting the over-reach of attacking Germany out of fear that Hitler was about to grab the entire Europe… Obviously, there was no NEED to do that and Chamberlain’s desires won… And in 1967 Israel followed the NEED and won in 6 days while in 1973 it yielded to its DESIRES to stay out of conflict…

    I am not advocating sending troops to fight ISIS right now; I am just saying that Obama’s “strategic patience” approach is a dangerous path to guaranteed problems in today’s dangerous anti-American world. Are we patiently going to wait until Iran gets a Bomb? We have already waited long enough for North Korea to get it….

    By the way, Mr. Brandon, are you saying that we do not get involved in Ukraine because our troops are too far away and we do not get involved in Korea because our troops are too close? So where do we have to have troops to get involved?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/10/2015 - 10:03 am.

      I was saying that

      geography matters.
      You gave two specific and unique (like all events) cases.
      In both, there are specific reasons why armed intervention would be a bad idea.
      In the case of Ukraine, I’m saying that there is no practical way to get troops and heavy weapons into Ukraine against serious Russian resistance. If Russia invaded the Baltics (equally distant), the situation would be quite different.
      Why do YOU think that we have not taken military action against North Korea in the past 60 years?

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/10/2015 - 07:59 pm.

        war and peace

        Because of the belief that a bad peace is better than a good war… The problem is that bad peace very often leads to bad war (WWI, WWII)… If one wants to find reasons not to go to war, they are always available but that doesn’t mean that the decision is correct.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/11/2015 - 12:28 pm.


          If one wants to find reasons to go to war, they are always available but that doesn’t mean that the decision is correct.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 02/11/2015 - 12:55 pm.

          A good war?

          you do know that those are real people being sent to die, right? This isn’t a board game we’re talking about…

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/11/2015 - 07:20 pm.

    Any war and any peace

    Mr. Holbrook, you are correct. The difference is that there are no normal people who think that ANY war is better than peace while there are plenty of people who think that ANY peace is better than war. So peace has a huge advantage from the start…

    Mr. Myron, you do know that 50 million people died during WWII just because Britain and France did not challenge Hitler earlier?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/12/2015 - 09:18 am.

      Visualize Whirled Peas

      Yes, peace has a huge advantage. The question should always be not “Why should we remain at peace?” Instead, it should be “Why should we go to war?” The burden of persuasion should be left on those who would go to war.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/12/2015 - 05:00 pm.

      I’m well aware of the death toll.

      But hindsight is 20/20. Hitler had a three year head start in re-militarizing the Rhineland before he annexed Czechoslovakia and Austria. France was in no position from a military standpoint to go to head to head with the Nazi’s at that point. They needed time to mobilize and gambled that Poland could hold out for a bit. Blitzkrieg warfare was an entirely new concept. But this has nothing to do with the fact that you seem to think that peace is a bad thing in some cases.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/11/2015 - 08:44 pm.

    “just because”

    Be nice if the world were that simple.
    There’s plenty of science fiction about how the world would have differed if WWII would have started earlier (I’d recommend Harry Turtledove), but it’s just that: fiction.
    If you read the history of the United States military between the world wars, you would know that England would have been fighting Germany by itself (France would still have toppled) since we had no significant army or air force until at least 1943, and probably have lost. As a result, it is quite likely that Stalin would have stayed allied with Hitler (Stalin liked to be on the winning side) and Hitler would have only had one front to fight on.
    You really think Hitler still would have lost? Maybe eventually, but at a much greater cost to Europe and to us. I agree that Russia -might- have gotten off easier, but Stalin was killing as many Russians, Ukrainians, etc. as Hitler was.
    Again, there’s speculation that Hitler’s invasion kept Stalin in power and the Russians might have revolted otherwise, but it’s just that — speculation.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/12/2015 - 06:35 pm.

    What if

    Mr. Holbrook, you are right again – the burden of persuasion should be on those who advocate for a war. However, an argument that wars are bad and should never be started should not be an argument from the peace side and quite often it is. Neither should an argument that people will die – more will die if a bad peace results in a bad war.

    Mr. Myron and Mr. Brandon, do you want to say that Munch agreement was the right thing to do for England and France? That they both benefited from that? If so, that is an interesting interpretation of the history. German’s army was really limited by Treaty of Versailles but France and England let Hitler get away with building it up, just to avoid a confrontation. If Germany were crashed in 1937 or 1938, Stalin would not have been in a position of any advantage if we consider his killing almost all of top military officers at that time.

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