For most commentators, President Barack Obama’s biggest achievement in his four-nation tour of Asia was the enhanced defense treaty he signed with Philippine President Benigno Aquino. The pact permits US forces to operate on Philippine military bases and sets the conditions for joint training of US and Philippine forces, among other things.
There are two problems with the treaty, however.
And they reflect the basic problem with US foreign policy generally, five-and-a-half years into the Obama presidency.
First, there is the reason that the treaty became necessary.
The Philippines has been under attack by China since 2012 when China seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines. Despite its mutual defense treaty with Manila, Washington did nothing.
This non-response emboldened China still further.
And today China is threatening the Second Thomas Shoal, another Philippine possession.
So, too, late last year China extended its Air Defense Identification Zone to include Japanese and South Korean airspace. The US responded to the aggressive move by recommending that its allies comply with China’s dictates.
The administration’s top priority in all these cases, as well as in the case of Beijing’s challenge to Japan’s control over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, has been to avoid conflicts with China.
But American timidity and refusal to abide by US treaty obligations to the Philippines and Japan have had the opposite effect.
By not responding to Chinese aggression, far from moderating China’s behavior, the Obama administration emboldened it. And in so doing, it destroyed the US’s deterrent posture in Asia. As China’s increasingly belligerent behavior has made clear, Obama’s attempt to appease China was perceived in Beijing as a green light for further aggression, because the Chinese correctly determined that Obama would never make them pay a price for seizing territory and otherwise harming America’s Asian allies.
Under these circumstances, Obama had no choice but to sign an enhanced defense treaty with the Philippines.
Far from calming the situation, though, the treaty increases the chance of war between China and its neighbors. No one, least of all China’s leadership, is fooled by Obama’s whiny insistence that the defense pact isn’t directed against China. And now China, already itching for more confrontations, will feel compelled to respond strongly.
This brings us to the second problem with the Obama administration’s new assertiveness in Asia. It simply isn’t credible.
On Wednesday, The Hill reported that due to Obama’s cuts in defense spending, for four months in 2015, the US will have no aircraft carriers in Asia. In other words, even as Obama’s rhetoric signals a renewed US military commitment to its allies, Obama’s defense cuts empty his pledges of substance.
We already know Obama lacks the will to confront China. And his decision to downsize the US military ensures the US will lack good options for confronting it in the coming years.
During his joint press conference in Manila on Monday with Aquino, Ed Henry from Fox News asked Obama to explain his foreign policy doctrine.
“What do you think the Obama Doctrine is in terms of what your guiding principle is on all of these crises and how you answer those critics who say they think the doctrine is weakness.”
Obama responded with his signature peevishness.
Before launching into a 900-word assault on a series of straw men to whom he attributed positions that at best distorted and at worst willfully misrepresented the positions of his critics, Obama muttered, “Well, Ed, I doubt that I’m going to have time to lay out my entire foreign policy doctrine.”
One thing that Obama did have the time do was signal to the Philippines that the US is no longer a reliable ally. After touting the new defense pact in one sentence, Obama proceeded to explain in the next that his administration cannot be expected to honor any commitment to defend the Philippines militarily.
Obama’s bloviations demonstrated why Henry’s question was so important.
For five-and-a-half years, Obama has not given a straightforward presentation of his foreign policy. Instead, he has tailored his foreign policy statements to what he thinks the public wishes to hear.
So for instance, in responding to Henry, Obama sounded an isolationist note, attacking imaginary critics for their automatic rush to arms in all circumstances.
Beyond being a gross mischaracterization of his critics, Obama’s remarks ignored the inconvenient fact that he sent US forces on a NATO mission to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya without congressional authorization.
No Republicans forced his hand. Since 2004, Gaddafi had posed no threat to US interests.
And in the aftermath of Obama’s unauthorized war in Libya, the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi. Al-Qaida and other jihadist groups that benefited from NATO’s operation have taken over large swathes of the country and sunk it into ungovernable chaos. And the chaos and jihad in Libya has spread out to much of northern Africa, bringing death, forcible conversion, torture, arms proliferation and terror in its wake.
Although Obama’s 900-word rant obscured rather than explained his foreign policy doctrine, the Obama Doctrine is easily understood from his actual policies – including his military adventure in Libya.
If Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy doctrine was “Peace through strength,” Obama’s doctrine can be summed up in two sentences: “Speak loudly and carry no stick.” And “Be good to your enemies and bad to your allies.”
The defense treaty with the Philippines, like Obama’s bluster in Ukraine and Syria, is a sterling example of the first part of his doctrine.
And Obama’s obsequious policies toward China, Russia and Iran on the one hand, and his coldness toward Japan, South Korea, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Israel on the other hand demonstrate the validity of the second part of his doctrine.
The reason that Obama has not shared his own doctrine with the American people is not because he can’t explain it in the course of one speech. It is because he knows that they won’t accept it.
For their part, the American people seem to have him figured out. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll published on Wednesday, Obama’s approval rating for his handling of foreign policy is at an all-time low. Only 38 percent of Americans approve of his handling of foreign policy and 53% disapprove.
The same poll gave respondents two foreign policy doctrines and asked them to choose the one they preferred.
The first was, “We need a president who will present an image of America that has a more open approach and is willing to negotiate with friend and foe alike.”
The second was, “We need a president who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.”
Thirty-nine percent preferred the first policy course and 55% the second one. These numbers are nearly identical to the approval numbers for Obama’s foreign policy.
The problem for dissatisfied Americans as well as for endangered US allies is that it is highly unlikely that Obama will respond to rising disapproval of his actions abroad by changing course.
For America’s allies this reality requires them to carve out their own courses the best they can.
In Israel’s case, this involves first and foremost taking a less idealistic and more mercenary view of the world. This means not shrinking away from opportunities with the likes of Russia and China when they arise. And certainly it means not automatically siding with the Obama administration against them.
The Obama administration is reportedly angry with Israel for refusing to join America in scolding Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. But it is far from clear that the Obama White House offers Jerusalem a better option. To date, Obama has repaid Israel for its willingness to toe his line by undermining its core interests, publicly attacking it and seeking to subvert the elected government.
Israel has no interest in getting on Russia’s bad side in order to placate the Obama administration. Nor is there any reason for Israel to obey the Obama administration’s demands for belligerent rhetoric when the next step of the Obama White House would doubtless be to turn around and castigate the “Israel lobby” for allegedly pushing the US toward war.
The same goes for China. There is no reason for Israel to jump into conflict with the growing Asian power. While Secretary of State John Kerry is egging on the Europeans to expand their trade war against Israel, China is assiduously expanding its trade with Israel. According to the Economy Ministry, next year Asia will surpass the US as Israel’s largest trading partner.
Then, of course, there is Iran. Out of loyalty and basic trust in the US’s strategic sanity, for the past decade, Israel has been willing to play second fiddle to the US in contending with Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program. This was never a wise policy, but at least under the Bush administration it was an understandable mistake.
Since his first days in office, Obama has signaled clearly through his deeds that he had absolutely no interest in blocking Iran’s nuclear progress. On the contrary, Obama’s policies in the Middle East have consistently involved strengthening and legitimizing the Iranian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of Israel and the less radical Sunni Arab states.
Out of habit, and in the hopes that something would change, Israel pretended away this reality and continued to follow Washington’s lead, limiting its goals to covert operations against Iran – that Obama leaked to the media – and lobbying Congress for sanctions that never had any chance of blocking Iran’s race to the nuclear finishing line.
Certainly since last November, when Obama signed his nuclear surrender to Iran, Israel has had no excuse for following the US’s lead on Iran. The deal’s sole effect is to enable Iran to become a nuclear power and a regional hegemon.
And so Israel must ignore it. Every day that Israel does not set back Iran’s nuclear progress brings Israel closer to being the subject of nuclear blackmail, Iranian-backed terrorism, and even nuclear Armageddon.
Obama may hide his doctrine behind petulance, populist canards and straw men, but it is clear enough. And that means that as far as Israel is concerned, its goal of securing its survival and prosperity for at least the next two-and-a-half years requires Jerusalem to act on its own and in the face of White House opposition.
It isn’t pleasant to defy the American president. It isn’t easy.
But in light of the Obama Doctrine, defying the White House is required to preserve the freedom of the Jewish people.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.