The dumbing down of American foreign policy

President Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 6, 2012.
AP Photo

(TomDispatch) Barack Obama is a smart guy. So why has he spent the last four years executing such a dumb foreign policy? True, his reliance on "smart power" -- a euphemism for giving the Pentagon a stake in all things global -- has been a smart move politically at home. It has largely prevented the Republicans from playing the national security card in this election year. But "smart power" has been a disaster for the world at large and, ultimately, for the United States itself.

Power was not always Obama's strong suit. When he ran for president in 2008, he appeared to friend and foe alike as Mr. Softy. He wanted out of the war in Iraq. He was no fan of nuclear weapons. He favored carrots over sticks when approaching America's adversaries.

His opponent in the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton, tried to turn this hesitation to use hard power into a sign of a man too inexperienced to be entrusted with the presidency. In 2007, when Obama offered to meet without preconditions with the leaders of Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, Clinton fired back that such a policy was "irresponsible and frankly naive." In February 2008, she went further with a TV ad that asked voters who should answer the White House phone at 3 a.m. Obama, she implied, lacked the requisite body parts -- muscle, backbone, cojones -- to make the hard presidential decisions in a crisis.

Obama didn't take the bait. "When that call gets answered, shouldn't the president be the one -- the only one -- who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start," his response ad intoned. "Who understood the real threat to America was al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Who led the effort to secure loose nuclear weapons around the globe."

Like most successful politicians, Barack Obama could be all things to all people. His opposition to the Iraq War made him the darling of the peace movement. But he was no peace candidate, for he always promised, as in his response to that phone call ad, to shift U.S. military power toward the "right war" in Afghanistan. As president, he quickly and effectively drove a stake through the heart of Mr. Softy with his pro-military, pro-war speech at, of all places, the ceremony awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Obama's protean abilities have come to the fore in his approach to what once was called "soft power," a term Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined in his 1990 book "Bound to Lead." For more than 20 years, Nye has been urging U.S. policymakers to find different ways of leading the world, exercising what he termed "power with others as much as power over others."

After 9/11, when "soft" became an increasingly suspect word, Washington policymakers began to use "smart power" to denote a menu of expanded options that were to combine the capabilities of both the State Department and the Pentagon. "We must use what has been called 'smart power,' the full range of tools at our disposal -- diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural -- picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation," Hillary Clinton said at her confirmation hearing for her new role as secretary of state. "With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy."

But diplomacy has not been at the vanguard of Obama's foreign policy. From drone attacks in Pakistan and cyber-warfare against Iran to the vaunted "Pacific pivot" and the expansion of U.S. military intervention in Africa, the Obama administration has let the Pentagon and the CIA call the shots. The president's foreign policy has certainly been "smart" from a domestic political point of view. With the ordering of the Seal Team Six raid into Pakistan that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden and "leading from behind" in the Libya intervention, the president has effectively removed foreign policy as a Republican talking point. He has left the hawks of the other party with very little room for maneuver.

But in its actual effects overseas, his version of "smart power" has been anything but smart. It has maintained imperial overstretch at self-destructive expense, infuriated strategic competitors like China, hardened the position of adversaries like Iran and North Korea, and tried the patience of even long-time allies in Europe and Asia.

Only one thing makes Obama's policy look geopolitically smart -- and that's Mitt Romney's prospective foreign policy. On global issues, then, the November elections will offer voters a particularly unpalatable choice: between a Democratic militarist and an even more over-the-top militaristic Republican, between Bush Lite all over again and Bush heavy, between dumb and dumber.

Mr. Softy Goes to Washington

Mr. Softy went to Washington in 2008 and discovered a backbone. That, at least, is how many foreign policy analysts described the "maturation" process of the new president. "Barack Obama is a soft power president," wrote the Financial Times's Gideon Rachman in 2009. "But the world keeps asking him hard power questions."

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is an Open Society Fellow for 2012-13 focusing on Eastern Europe. He is the author of "Crusade 2.0: The West's Resurgent War on Islam" (City Lights Books). His writings can be found on his website To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which John Feffer discusses power -- hard, soft, smart, and dumb -- click here or download it to your iPod here. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.