Oxymorons have been around for a long time. The term first appears as a 5th century Latin word. The concept of oxymoron is so totally ingrained in our thought process that the spelling hasn’t changed since the term first appeared. Phrases such as "jumbo shrimp," "crash landing" and "open secret" are routine speech. The latest term to join the oxymoron dictionary is the phrase "Obama’s foreign policy."
As citizens of a world power, we assume that every president’s administration must have a foreign policy. The success or failure of any president rests on their ability to deal with foreign nations in such a way as to benefit and protect our national interests. The ones we label as "great" or "near-great" are always the ones who deal successfully with foreign affairs, whether they involve friend or foe. Domestic matters are "in house." If an internal matter isn’t dealt with successfully, it will either self-heal or the next administration will find a solution. These problems may be serious, but they don’t endanger our existence as a nation.
We are simply too big, too rich and too accessible to the world to fantasize about not being a major world player. This has been true since 1492. Spanish, Dutch, French, English and even Swedish forces have attempted to control all or part of what is now the U.S. Since the 1680s seven world wars have been fought over our future. Since 1945 we have fought five major conflicts and several smaller ones to maintain our place in he world. These armed conflicts, as deadly and costly of blood and treasure as they were, were not as dangerous to us as the struggle we called (oxymoron alert!) the "Cold War" with the Soviets from 1918 to 1990-something.
Administrations and leaders come and go, but the U.S. has always had a set of principles as the basis for our foreign policy that was adopted and followed by successive leaders. George Washington laid it out with two succinct principles. The first was to avoid "entangling alliances" -- consider America first, act with others as needed, but always keep ourselves in control of our own interests.
The second was that our peace and freedom can only be guaranteed by ourselves being willing to maintain the military strength to defend them. He understood, as has every president up until now, that America is a special place. We are unique in so many ways that no one can imitate us; they can only challenge us. We constantly have to define ourselves and make unmistakeably clear what we will do to to preserve our unique existence. Whether it was Monroe’s Doctrine, T.R.’s Big Stick, FDR’s noble call to arms, or Harry Truman’s mix of Marshall Plan aid, military alliances and restrained use of force, our policies were simple and clearly laid out. Friends could rely on us; enemies challenged us gingerly.
All of this began to unravel in June 2009. Mr. Obama’s first major foreign policy statement was not delivered to the American people from our capitol, or even from our own soil. He chose to go to Cairo, Egypt, and apologize to the world for America having been America. There was no call for a mutual policy to deal with the incendiary region of the Middle East, no suggestions as to what our role might be in dealing with any of the almost endless international tensions that in some way stem from this region. It was simply a speech of abject self-humbling. It seemed as if, for the first time in history, a strong world power resigned their position. The Nobel Prize committee loved it. So did every leader of every movement or nation that wished only harm to the U.S.
The Cairo speech was followed later that year with another show of weakness. The Obama administration cancelled an agreement we had with Poland to strengthen their missile defense system. This was done as part of an announced goal to "re-set" our relations with the Russians. Russia’s influence in Europe and Asia had been sagging ever since the break up of the Soviet Union and our own influence was continuing to rise. This attempt to appease the Russians was not matched by any similar gesture on their part. We gained nothing in return. The need to "re-set" our relations with Russia was seen by everyone except Mr. Obama as a sign of amateurish naivete.
What followed were the "Arab Spring" and the destabilization of the region from Iran to Tunisia. Israeli-Arab relationships became more volatile because no one felt they knew whether on not the U.S. still had much skin in the game. The Iraqi drift toward open civil war accelerated. The Afghan War stumbled further into limbo (oxymoron alert!) Taliban negotiations are scheduled to begin this week.
The Syrian crisis has been unattended for two years because we did not have a plan, and no serious plan to get a plan. IF there was a time we could have played a role, that time has passed. The Russians and the Iranians have filled the power vacuum we created.
Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel are all acting independently because there is little leadership from us, and has not been since 2009. We still have no plan except to beg for negotiations in which we will have little suasion. Any boots on the ground now would be insane folly. We can only hope that our promise to send "small arms" doesn’t lead to some kind of mission creep. Perhaps the president will get bored with fund raising for 2014 and find time to read a book on foreign policy for dummies.
Weiland Ross is a Banner columnist.