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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 naïve.” 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.”