Obama is surrounded by hawks, doves and isolationists

Foreign hotspots bedevil president

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Like Custer at Little Big Horn, the commander in chief is surrounded.

Arrows are flying. So are spears, tomahawks and bullets – from every direction. Will he make it out alive?

To paraphrase former Commander in Chief Bill Clinton, it all depends on what the meaning of alive is. Yeah, he’ll finish out the term. But he may be looking a whole lot like Custer toward the end.

President Barack Obama’s biggest troubles right now come from foreign lands, from situations where America has no control and little influence.  And there are a bunch of hairy situations boiling over at once in an almost conspiratorial way.

But what makes the president’s position right now so precarious is this:  He faces a bloodthirsty, relentless and hawkish attack from the Republican opposition, understated but steady criticism from the dovish left and public opinion that is at once isolationist and hungry for super-power status and security.

There are no obvious escapes or counter-attacks.

The coincidence of foreign policy battles this summer is intense.

The shooting down of MH17 refocused attention not just on Ukraine, but also on Vladimir Putin.  Hawks want Obama to do more, though he has done much of what they suggest (sanctions), doves want him to do less and the public doesn’t want to be involved.

That dynamic is repeated in every hot hotspot.

In Syria, hawks wanted stronger intervention for geopolitical reasons, liberals for humanitarian reason, while the public didn’t want to intervene at all.

In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the hawks want Obama to do more for the Israelis, the doves for the Palestinians and the public wants the United States to stay out.

In Iraq, the neocon hawks, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, want U.S. intervention, the doves want to erase history and the public, again, just want the United States to stay out.

On the Mexican border, the hawks think Obama caused the crisis by being a wimp and they want the migrant minors shipped back to Central America pronto and the liberals want them to have full due process and humane treatment in the United States.  The public supports the president’s policy of spending more money to process the cases and guard the border, but disapprove of the president’s handling of the issue. Go figure.

Polls have shown an entrenched isolationist tendency since the United States started getting soldiers out of in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trend is brought up to date by a new poll by Politico.

Neither party garners strong support on foreign policy, but the non-interventionist mood is clear:

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Politico Poll

So, 77 percent support withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, 23 percent do not.

In Syria, 42 percent want the United States to have less involvement than it does, 15 percent more.

The same holds in the Ukraine: 34 percent want less involvement, 17 percent more. (The poll was taken before MH17 was shot down.)

In Iraq, 44 percent was less U.S. involvement, 19 percent more.

Obama’s approval ratings are bad: 43 percent approve, 57 percent disapprove.

The Republicans in Congress’ approval ratings are worse: 26 percent disapprove, 73 percent disapprove.

Obviously, the non-interventionist views of the majority of Americans are not translating into support for the reluctant interventionist president. As David Corn writes in Mother Jones:

“This is a time of dilemmas and, yes, hard choices. A variety of polls in the past year have clearly showed the American public is not keen on US military intervention in Syria, Ukraine, or Iraq. Yet, no doubt, Americans look to the president with a very powerful yearning: fix it. That is, make the chaos go away and protect us.”

Understandably wary after two wars in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, Americans not only want stability and protection, they want America to lead, but they don’t want to pay the price.  Robert Kagan is a neoconservative foreign policy maven who actually has some sympathy for the president’s plight.  In an essay called “President Obama’s foreign policy paradox,” Kagan writes:

“A majority of Americans may not want to intervene in Syria, do anything serious about Iran or care what happens in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt or Ukraine. They may prefer a minimalist foreign policy in which the United States no longer plays a leading role in the world and leaves others to deal with their own miserable problems. They may want a more narrowly self-interested American policy. In short, they may want what Obama so far has been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.

"For many decades Americans thought of their nation as special. They were the self-proclaimed 'leader of the free world,' the 'indispensable nation,' the No. 1 superpower. It was a source of pride. Now, pundits and prognosticators are telling them that those days are over, that it is time for the United States to seek more modest goals commensurate with its declining power. And they have a president committed to this task. He has shown little nostalgia for the days of U.S. leadership and at times seems to conceive it as his job to deal with the 'reality' of decline.”

Republicans prey on that paradox, on this wish that America were mightier and the world sane.  The surest way to make money in Washington today is to bet that if something happens in a foreign country that CNN sees fit to cover, John McCain or Lindsey Graham will be in front of a camera within the hour.

Often their substantive views aren’t all that different from the president’s. Sometimes they just say he just doesn’t sound tough enough. On the July 20 “Meet the Press,” Graham said, “President Obama is trying to be deliberative. It comes off as indecisive. He's trying to be thoughtful. It comes off as weakness.”

Better he should try to be heedless and reactionary?

But McCain and Graham are mild by comparison. Here’s Newt Gingrich writing in CNN.com:

“Obama is rapidly becoming the weakest president since James Buchanan failed to stop the drift toward Civil War.

Self-delusion and a rich fantasy life are dangerous in a president. They often lead to disasters that are unimaginable until they happen.

That is what we have to worry about for the next two years until he leaves public office for a private fantasyland.”

When Republicans come back to power in the White House, they will have to deal with the paradox of foreign policy again. It isn’t going away. Their words will not come back to haunt them; there isn’t that much accountability in politics. 

But the ingredients that are baked into foreign affairs aren’t changing.  The chaos of the world is instantly and deeply accessible in a hyper-connected, media soaked globe. Everything is amplified and accelerated.  Right after 9/11, public opinion shed isolationism but it didn’t last long. And it will be a long time before Americans shed the nostalgia of being a real, 20th century superpower.

If only the players in Washington could just get along.

There have been moments in American history where the parties have forged diplomatic consensus of foreign crises while they continue to hack at each other on domestic issues. This is not such a time.

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