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Is Obama’s foreign policy doctrine working?

April 30, 2014 at 6:33 PM EST
Little progress on a broad Pacific trade agreement and challenging dynamics in Ukraine and the Mideast peace process have prompted new criticism for President Obama’s foreign policy. Gwen Ifill gets reaction from Nicholas Burns of Harvard University, Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer and retired Col. Andrew Bacevich from Boston University.
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GWEN IFILL: The Obama administration has been fielding questions this week about its handling of foreign policy matters. Tonight, we look at some of those questions, and the issues they raise.

From Syria to Israel, to Ukraine and Russia, to last week’s four-nation Asia trip, foreign policy has returned to center stage for President Obama. But setbacks have claimed as much attention as success. The president returned home yesterday with a new military agreement with the Philippines.

But a broader Pacific trade deal was left undone. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Ukraine’s borders, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu abandoned peace talks with the Palestinians.

In Washington, critics like Republican Senator John McCain have challenged the president’s leadership and taken Secretary of State John Kerry to task.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R, Ariz.: My hero, Teddy Roosevelt, used to say talk softly, but carry a big stick. What you’re doing is talking strongly, and carrying a very small stick, in fact, a twig.

The people of Ukraine should know, why won’t we give them some defensive weapons when they are facing the — and another invasion, not the first, but another invasion of their country? It is just beyond logic.

GWEN IFILL: Kerry responded that diplomacy should always be the avenue of first resort.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: But your friend Teddy Roosevelt also said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena who are trying to get things done, and we’re trying to get something done. Sure, we may fail. And you want to dump it on me, I may fail. I don’t care. It’s worth doing. It’s worth the effort.

GWEN IFILL: In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is now seeking reelection, ignoring repeated U.S. calls for him to step down.

More than 150,000 are now dead in that civil war, and peace talks in Geneva fizzled earlier this year. On Monday, while traveling in Manila, the president offered a pointed response to critics who say he has been too slow to act forcefully.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My job as commander in chief is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely. And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people have no interest in participating in and wouldn’t advance our core security interests.

GWEN IFILL: The administration has been able to score some victories, including the destruction of much of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. And last November, Iran agreed to a six-month deal to freeze parts of its nuclear program. Negotiations for a longer-term agreement are continuing.

So, we dive right into the debate about the successes and the setbacks with Nicholas Burns, a career Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to NATO. He’s now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations and history at Boston University, his latest book is “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. And Trudy Rubin is the “Worldview” columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Familiar faces, all. Thank you for joining us again.

Andrew Bacevich, I want to start with you up there in Boston. What is your sense about how well or how well it has not gone, the Obama foreign policy doctrine?

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH (RET.), Boston University: Well, when we elected President Obama, I think the expectations were that he was going to score an A. Remember, he is the guy that, upon being inaugurated, received the Nobel Peace Prize. And he doesn’t deserve an A.

He probably deserves about a C. But it’s all relative. And I would take a C over the F that his predecessor scored.

GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: I would also say, although it’s very hard to rate a president, I would say C, or passing, because I think there have been some real failures and a lack of connecting the dots, and focus on a preconceived notion that we were entering into a world where we could build a rule-based global system, and somehow ignoring the fact that there were big players out there who still played hard politics and were interested in using hard power, not soft power.

So, there’s been a couple of redeeming areas, but basically the preconceptions, I think, has led him really astray.

GWEN IFILL: Nick Burns, that sounds naiveté on the president’s part?

NICHOLAS BURNS, Harvard University: I think the president and we, as the American people, are facing multiple challenges on every continent.

And I think his record is mixed because it’s hard to take a snapshot on any one day and say he is winning and losing in foreign policy. These are long-run problems. Where he’s done very well is on Iran, where for the first time in 34 years, we have got the Iranians at the negotiating table, mainly through very tough-minded sanctions that he and George W. Bush put in place.

I think on this recent trip of Asia, he showed the big conceptual breakthrough of the first term of his administration, that more of our interests, strategic, military, economic, political interests, will be in Asia than in any other part of the world. He has given it real time. This new agreement with the Philippines is going to reinforce our military strength.

He is spending more time with Xi Jinping. That’s his most important relationship, given China’s power. Now, there are a lot of problems with the Chinese. But you want the American president and Chinese president to be talking.

I think, Gwen, that the attack on the president, the rhetorical attack, this week, has been he isn’t leading with a great degree of self-confidence in, say, Ukraine on the Russia problem or in Syria with the Assad problem.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s start with those bookends, Andrew Bacevich, Syria on end getting up to the brink and then not intervening, or Putin in Russia and Crimea and allowing — or at least that’s what his critics say — allowing Putin to claim Crimea without much of a fight.

How would you describe what happened in between those two poles?

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH: Well, I think on Syria, there’s no question that the president misspoke, to put it kindly, when he drew his red line that the Assad regime subsequently crossed.

Then the president looked around as he was about to go to war in Syria and realized that nobody was with him. Certainly, the American people were not with him. So to make a threat and then to not make good on that threat was a great mistake.

That said, ultimately, the decision not to intervene militarily in Syria was the correct decision. This is a massive humanitarian problem. I think you can make an argument that we generally in the West are not doing enough to alleviate the suffering caused by that civil war. But to meddle in the civil war without knowing which side really ought to win in terms of advancing our own interests would be a mistake.

And I think the Ukraine issue needs to be placed in a larger context. And then the larger context is the aftermath of the Cold War. When the Cold War ended, there were any number of countries that in a sense were up for grabs, Central Europe, the Baltic republics, the Balkans, and virtually all of these countries have since been incorporated into the West, into the E.U., into NATO.

That’s to say that we have scarfed up about 95 percent of the marbles that were still in play. And in that sense, it’s hardly surprising that Putin, who is a thug, is taking this moment to poke us back because he has been the loser for the past two decades.

GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, what about the president’s role in both of those cases. Andrew Bacevich says he didn’t do it well, but he ultimately did the right thing in Syria. Did that happen in — first of all, do you agree? And then did that happen in Ukraine?

TRUDY RUBIN:  No, I think he did the wrong thing in Syria.

And I don’t think it was ever an issue of going to war in Syria. I think what the president did is overlook the fact that moving towards diplomacy and saying there’s no military solution doesn’t mean that you sometimes have to take tough steps in order to convince some of the players, in this case, Assad and Vladimir Putin, that they had no choice but to go to diplomacy.

In fact, John Kerry was much more outspoken about this when he was chairman of Senate Foreign Relations. And he said back then in 2012 quite bluntly that, in order to get Assad to the table — and he could have said in order to get Putin to accept this — you would have to work hard at organizing the opposition, and you might have to give lethal arms.

Having covered this from the beginning, there were forces who could have been trusted, who could have been vetted. And in order to get Assad to the table, especially as this thing develops with all the casualties, you had to take a lead role in organizing and making sure that weapons went to the right people.

Instead, by basically hanging back, the president has in effect allowed a situation to develop where there’s a new Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. And there’s a real terrorist threat all through Eastern Syria and Western Iraq that could have been confronted early on.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Nick Burns, to what degree did the White House or the administration prioritize incorrectly? For instance, a lot of energy on Secretary Kerry’s part was expended trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table? Was that the wrong choice?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I’m not sure it’s the right construct, because we are the only global power.

We have important American interests everywhere in the world, and so we have got to be able to have a national security team — and I think we do — that can be active on China and Japan, that can be active with the Israelis and Palestinians. I respect what Secretary Kerry tried to do.

But it’s now clear that the Israelis and Palestinians are not ready for a negotiation. So, he is going to have to pivot to the China-Japan relationship and reduce conflict there. And I think their big challenge will be Putin now, because a lot of people are watching all over the world.

I have been in Sao Paulo and Hong Kong in the last six weeks, and people saying, if the president didn’t show decisiveness on Syria, is he going to make Putin respect him and draw lines that Putin will respect in Europe? And I think it’s that credibility problem that the president has time to address it. He has two-and-a-half years left.

Presidents in their second term sometimes turn to foreign policy because the Constitution gives them great latitude, and he needs that grasp that opportunity for leadership here.

GWEN IFILL: Here is the dilemma I want to pose to all three of you.

We have seen two new big national polls come out this week, in which the American people basically said, it’s OK, I don’t really feel like we should be intervening, we should have that muscular a role anymore in foreign policy.

And yet — and yet, at the same time, if the president does that, they say he is not leading, that he’s a little weak, that he’s behind the curve. Where is the sweet spot, the middle ground there, Andrew Bacevich?

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH: Well, your lead-in quoted the president as saying that force is a last resort, should be a last resort, right, correctly.

And I think that marks the distance that we have traveled since the early years of the George W. Bush administration, which treated force as the first resort and produced catastrophic consequences.

So, the president I think is correctly interpreting the views of the American people, and the American people, in this case, are not stupid.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Trudy Rubin, and ask you to keep it tight.

TRUDY RUBIN: I think we’re not talking about going to war.

I think that even if the president puts an emphasis on diplomacy, it has to be backed up by something. Putin respects strength. And so I think there should have been more targeted sanctions earlier and more now. He is likely to disrupt elections in May, and if there’s not a message, clear message sent. I don’t think it’s a question of looking at the polls and saying no war, no more war.

It’s a question of looking at American needs and looking how you can back up diplomacy with a real strong policy where you show interest and take leadership.

GWEN IFILL: Nick Burns?

NICHOLAS BURNS: It’s not surprising the American people after two bitter wars and a big recession want to rebuild the country at home. But the reality is that our economic and our political security future depend on being that world leader.

And that’s the job of the president, to really defy these polls and to explain to the American people from the bully pulpit what we have invested overseas and why we need to continue to be the world leader and fight the isolationist trends in the Democratic Party on the left and in the Republican Party, certainly Tea Party, on the right.

GWEN IFILL: Nick Burns, Trudy Rubin, Andrew Bacevich, thank you all.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.