MANILA – At a news conference in the Philippines on Monday afternoon, President Obama initially scoffed when a reporter asked him to explain the “Obama doctrine” in light of his handling of recent world events.
But then he seemed to embrace the idea. Surveying hot spots from Syria to Ukraine, Obama laid out an incremental, dogged approach to foreign relations that relies on the United States deploying every possible economic and institutional lever before resorting to armed force.
“That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows,” said Obama, who is nearing the end of a weeklong, four-nation tour of Asia. “But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”
The passion in Obama’s delivery — he admitted he had gotten “all worked up” — underlined the quandary the White House now faces. With an array of unpalatable options around the globe, Obama and his aides are convinced that a cautious approach is helping the country avoid dangerous overseas entanglements while producing modest successes. But they are also increasingly frustrated with critics on Capitol Hill and in the media who have questioned why the president has been so reluctant to intervene abroad.
“Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force,” Obama said. “And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?”
But Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, “This is not a president who has projected strong U.S. leadership on the world stage or powerful engagement with key American allies.” The past week highlighted some of the downsides to the administration’s strategy, as the Mideast peace process ran aground and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no interest in bringing a peaceful end to the standoff in Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and the government in Kiev.
But it also showed some of the possibilities, administration aides said. The Malaysian government signed on to the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global effort aimed at curbing the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, which it had resisted embracing for more than a decade. The Philippine government agreed to a 10-year deal giving U.S. naval and air forces the most access to its waters since 1992.
All four of the Asian leaders who met with Obama over the past week made clear that they not only appreciated his visit but saw their economic and security fortunes as tied to the United States. At a time when China’s expansionist efforts have alarmed some of its neighbors, the president’s emphasis on the importance of the rule of law and international arbitration pleased not just long-standing allies such as the Philippines but newer ones such as Malaysia.
In Manila on Monday, Obama questioned why some politicians and pundits are so quick to see military intervention as a simple solution for Ukraine and other conflicts. “The point is that for some reason, many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade.”