Obama the 'very careful' foreign policy president
May 29th, 2014
09:21 AM ET

Obama the 'very careful' foreign policy president

CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about U.S. foreign policy, President Barack Obama’s policy address at West Point on Wednesday, and how history might judge the Obama administration.

Critics of the Obama administration say military reluctance has left the United States weakened and openly defied by the likes of Russia and Syria. Is America weak?

No. Gosh, America is stronger than perhaps at most points in its history. You think about when we faced the Soviet Union, when we faced a communist China that was funding revolutionary movements all over the world against us – even when we faced a pretty powerful jihadi terrorist movement only 10 years ago. The United States is basically very strong, very secure. This debate is not really about American strength or weakness. It's about American engagement – how should America engage with the world?

Some might argue it's easier to appear strong when you're fighting one known enemy, like Japan during World War II, or Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan after 9/11. But now the United States is dealing with Russia, Syria, China, Boko Haram, al Qaeda affiliated groups all over the world. Should the president focus on one or two, or all of them? What should his foreign policy be?

That's a very, very good point. I think that it's not just that there are lots of different challenges as opposed to the central challenge during the Cold War. You know, you had the Soviet Union and that was a kind of moral and political and strategic challenge, but the world of many different challenges is also much more complicated. For example, China is our second largest trading partner, yet at the same time in some sense it is a strategic rival in Asia. We have good commercial ties with Russia, and yet Russia is a strategic adversary on many issues.

More from CNN: 4 takeaways from speech

So, how do you deal with that? You might think of the Facebook term “frenemy.” Or some kind of in between category where we have to be able to figure out a way to engage with the world, resist certain kinds of bad behavior, but at the same time not launch some kind of grand crusade. I think a lot of the president's critics are nostalgic in a way for the Cold War, when it was very easy because your ideological enemy, your political enemy, your economic enemy and your strategic enemy were all the same person. It's a whole new world out there.

In most Americans' minds, strength often translates to troops. Americans want the United States to appear strong, but most are against boots on the ground these days. So how do you appear strong without the threat of military action?

I think you put your finger on exactly the challenge the president is going to try to address in this speech…A lot of times I think the president's frustration comes from the fact that critics seem to be saying, you're not doing enough. You're weak. You're giving in. When I think his feeling is, well, I'm doing lots of things that are deeply engaged and take a lot of time, energy and effort. What I'm not doing is using the military, and I'm going to be disciplined about that. I think that one of the things that’s very much part of this president's core belief is that overusing the military actually undermines American power and strength rather than builds it up.

Is it too early to assess how historians will view the president's foreign policy?

No, I think you see the basic outlines. More than any other president, I think Obama follows in Dwight Eisenhower's mold. He is very restrained and disciplined about the use of force.

There's one line in that speech where he says, "If you look back historically, the United States' greatest errors in its foreign policy have not been from an excessive use of restraint but from overreactions." I think he's thinking of Vietnam or Iraq, which get us into trouble and then weaken our credibility and our resolve.

More from CNN: Goodbye American hubris

And that, I think – more than anything – is his guiding idea, which is be very careful. Measure twice before you cut once. And if you look at Iraq, you look at Afghanistan, you look at Syria – even in Libya, where he did intervene – these are all measured, restrained efforts.

Now, when you look at the nonmilitary part, I think he would argue there's been considerable political, diplomatic kind of intervention. But there are some people who wish that that part of it was a little bit more turbocharged. I certainly know people in Asia feel they love the idea of the pivot to Asia, but they wish there were more energy behind it.

But the overall idea, I think, is very much one of restraint and discipline.

I think that part of this debate that we've been having in Washington about Obama's foreign policy is really a debate about which direction history is moving. Are we in a world in which Russia is rising, a deep, dark autocracy that's taking over parts of its neighborhood and thus undermining the international system? China is doing the same in Asia. As a result, we're seeing world order spiral.

Or, are we generally seeing a worldwide movement toward more freedom, a greater degree of economic openness? And yes, there are some rearguard actions, and there are some cautions that we have to be concerned about. I think Obama very much feels that history is on our side. If you look at the transformation of continents like Latin America or Africa, 30 years ago – almost entirely ruled by mostly anti-western dictators – they are now in a very different place.

I think he feels like things are going generally well. Don't screw things up. Make sure you don't make big mistakes and deal with the real threats we face, like terrorists.


soundoff (284 Responses)
  1. nmatney353

    Even other countries view America as weak today. I really don't get into politics, but Obama is doing EXACTLY what I thought he would do 2 elections ago: unravel our military might around the world and hide behind so-called better unemployment numbers (which by the way is completely false in most of the nation).

    On a side note: if you want unemployment to truly change for the better, you need to get gas prices down. Companies are slowly being pinched by these gas prices that help make their costs sky-rocket. This allows our production sectors to fall (easy for politicians to deal with: outsource to different countries) and our service sectors to rise (there's really only so many internet companies we truly need; it's getting saturated).

    June 1, 2014 at 7:39 am |
  2. kgt

    Like it or not, the history books will record Obama as an abysmal failure – on par with the Carter administration. All these lofty comparisons of Obama to successful leaders of the past are unwarranted and untrue.

    June 1, 2014 at 10:44 am |
    • Gleep

      Sure sucks when the roof in your single-wide starts leaking, doesn't it?

      June 1, 2014 at 3:54 pm |
      • omaha beach

        typical liberal response: blame bush, scream 'racist!', or just plain name call.

        June 1, 2014 at 5:19 pm |
      • David Marriott

        Go back downstairs in your parents basement!...Acorn, will tell you when it's time to come out and vote!

        June 2, 2014 at 4:35 am |
      • familydoc2

        You are implying that there is no racism directed at Obama, when you could not be further from the truth. Trying to deny that racism just facilitates and perpetuates it, whether you are racist or not.

        June 5, 2014 at 4:58 am |
      • scranton

        Probably no more than it does in your trailer.

        June 7, 2014 at 8:40 am |
    • BADGUY

      Maybe history books printed in the basement of GOP headquarters..or...in one of the myriad. Koch Brother, Charities! But..for EVERYONE ELSE...Obama's a HERO! He....SAVED... the USA from Depression. Saved GM. Saved MILLIONS of Jobs. Ended TWO wars and skated out of two OTHER, likely, conflicts. He GOT Bin Laden. He, almost single handedly, LAUNCHED the ONLY comprehensive medical program we've EVER HAD.... in our ENTIRE 230 year history! And, if that's not enough, he DID all of that with a Republican Party that has CONTINUOUSLY tried to sabotage EVERY major bill he has proposed! The GUY'S a wonder!

      June 1, 2014 at 5:49 pm |
      • Bob - just Bob

        The sabotage and details of GOP monkey-wrenching will continue to come out for a long time. Obama's persistence in the face of this may be a bigger part of his legacy than the ACA.

        June 1, 2014 at 6:25 pm |
      • David Marriott

        The monkeys with the wrenches in obamacare care are gullible people like yourself, desperately trying to keep this fantasy alive, but all supposedly good things come to an end! Can you blame the GOP for kicking back and enjoying another Democrat comedy starring Obozo the clown and the Keystone chimps? Obama care will go down in history as the longest lasting broadway comedy in history! ...LOL

        June 2, 2014 at 4:45 am |
      • familydoc2

        @David Marriott-There is no guarantee that your viewpoint of Obama will be the prevailing one. In fact, given the results of the election in 2012, at least among those who cast a vote he has more supporters than detractors. The tide is already turning about Obamacare, though the true test is how well it works over the next five or ten years. GOTP candidates are already backing away from "Repeal Obamacare" in their campaigns for the 2014 elections.

        June 5, 2014 at 5:03 am |
      • scranton

        Probably the most incoherent post make to day. Talk about disillusioned.

        June 7, 2014 at 8:43 am |
    • yapido

      Worst president ever.

      June 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm |
    • PSH

      I really hope you are around for the next ten-twenty years, and see how this president's genius saved our economy, military lives, and put America on a course leading to heights far above those of the ancients civilizations. Just you will have to wait until the "curtain is pulled back". In the meantime, I suggest that some of us needs to, "keep our eyes and ears open and mouth shut"

      June 8, 2014 at 7:15 am |
  3. Idania

    Comparing Eisenhower to Obama is an insult to Eisenhower. First an foremost Eisenhower loved this country. Obama doesn't. In his own words he said that if there is a time to choose he will stand with the Muslims. Those were his words.
    HE is the one that have made this a weak country, bowing to the Saudi King, denying our Judeo- Christian roots, bending to the Muslims and giving them, more and more power, helping AL Qaida in the Syrian conflict, withholding aid in Benghazi to keep in good terms with their attackers government, and I could go on and on. What I can not figure it out is how the Press ignore all the dirty deals his government has been making.

    June 1, 2014 at 11:00 am |
    • rl

      Yes you could go on and on and you would be just as wrong as with the ones you typed. The first step is really stating why you hate the President. He is different? right? Who authorisized the raid to kill Bin Laden. I know you'll say he didn't personally do it so it was not him. What did Bush do except fly out to an aircraft carrier with his cod piece?

      June 1, 2014 at 11:20 am |
      • bob

        It took his adviser three times to get him to authorized the raid, but it was the people in the military, cia and many more organization that got OBL. The kill order for OBL started with Clinton, Obama just happen to be in office.

        June 8, 2014 at 7:18 am |
    • sparky

      "In his own words he said that if there is a time to choose he will stand with the Muslims."

      Provide that quote.

      June 1, 2014 at 3:09 pm |
    • Gleep

      Maybe it's not them. It's you.

      June 1, 2014 at 3:54 pm |
    • BADGUY

      Eisenhower "stepped into" Vietnam, after the French go kicked out and convinced our South Vietnamese "puppet" to cancel the elections the French had negotiated with the Viet Minh! In OTHER words, if Eisenhower had NOT listened to his McCarthy right wing anti-communist backers, and "nosed into" a conflict in which we had NO INTEREST...AND NO BUSINESS... we'd NEVER have had the War in Vietnam.....56,000 young Americans would STILL be alive...as would MILLIONS of Vietnamese. You're Wrong! Eisenhower cannot hold a candle to Obama!

      June 1, 2014 at 5:53 pm |
  4. Chris

    I have said for years that Obama is an Eisenhower Republican.

    June 1, 2014 at 11:26 am |
  5. jdk47

    All the propaganda in the world will not save the historical legacy of Obama's Presidency. Turned a normal business cycle recession into a depression, allowed the world to descend into chaos, and destroyed our relationships with our best allies. There will be no other way to view it in the lens of 100 years hence.

    June 1, 2014 at 11:28 am |
    • BADGUY

      You're kidding...right? That was NO minor recession GWB left us with. It was DEPRESSION II. But for Obama, we'd ALL be selling pencils on street corners by now! I STILL don't know how he pulled it off...but I'm VERY grateful he did! He's CERTAINLY the best President since FDR! And since FDR NEVER had to deal with the amount of Republican sabotage we've seen, over the last 5 years....even THAT is debatable!

      June 1, 2014 at 5:59 pm |
      • Tom

        Unfortunately you are misinformed. The Great Recession was a direct result of Clinton pursuing (with Republican support), but as president, obtained the repeal of the Glass-Steigel act – and then Democratic insistence in lowering hurdles for low income folks to obtain housing loans. No mystery.

        June 8, 2014 at 7:34 pm |
    • bob

      Could not have said it better.

      June 8, 2014 at 7:19 am |
  6. Jay

    Obama? Yes isn't he a Peach! I agree that we should step back and judge his legacy when all is said and done. If it weren't so tragic I would say he who laughs last laughs best but there will be no comedic relief after this 8 year debacle.

    June 1, 2014 at 11:44 am |
    • Jack

      Jay, first, only time will tell. I have been through 11 presidency, not one them in which there hasn't been critics galore and we have survived and prospered. It will happen again.

      Even Nixon and Watergate can't diminish the China Policy that has benefitted the world. So, I'd submit "come back in 30 years and readdress your statement of doom and gloom"

      June 1, 2014 at 1:39 pm |
  7. Whatever

    CNN never ceases to surprise at just how superior they feel above their audience. CNN interviewing their own reporter, (left leaning at the very least, ) is not news or an example of ethical standards in journalism.

    June 1, 2014 at 12:36 pm |
  8. Edward Hazzard

    Sadly, as happens all too often, Mr. Zakaria speaks from a position of ignorance. Comparing President Obama to President Eisenhower is laughable. President Eisenhower fought for this nation; President Obama, on the other hand, fights this nation. A better comparison would be to compare President Obama to President Carter. Both were paper tigers. On the other hand, while President Carter spent much of his time in office hiding from the press, President Obama spends much of his spare time on Golf courses and on expensive public funded vacations.

    As Mel Brooks once said "It's good to be the King!".

    June 1, 2014 at 5:01 pm |


      June 1, 2014 at 10:54 pm |
  9. MTW

    Why does everyone equate use of the military with "boots on the ground?" DId Kennedy put boots on the ground when we blockaded Cuba? DId the establishment of no-fly zones in Iraq equal boots on the ground? When the Navy intercepted a plane carrying LIbyan terrorists and forced it to land in Italy, did that equate to boots on the ground? We have lots of ways of applying military power. Few of them require boots on the ground. This President and this columnist don't seem to appreciate that.

    June 1, 2014 at 6:32 pm |
  10. chri§§y

    Exactly @ BADGUY and @ Bob. And yea im sure we will see alot more nonsense out of our romper room congress before his time is up! We need to fire each and every one of them and start over!

    June 1, 2014 at 6:58 pm |
  11. chri§§y

    And @ sparky when exactly did he say this?

    June 1, 2014 at 7:06 pm |
  12. chri§§y

    And im asking because the only reference ive found to that was when he was talking about his religous faith and the american muslims! Muslim IS a religion you know and thats what this country is all about. Freedom of religion...so if youre opposed to that maybe you should relocate.

    June 1, 2014 at 7:38 pm |


    June 1, 2014 at 11:03 pm |
  14. Cary Grant

    Ohbozo is worse than Carter. At least Carter was an honest, moral man. Lousy president. But honest and moral. The same CANNOT be said about ohbozo the clown.

    June 1, 2014 at 11:46 pm |
  15. chri§§y

    I dont know who you are calling ignorant @ HAWAEE DON but if its me you need to put up or shut up! What is it exactly that you know so much about and that you think im "ignorant" about? When youre gonna make those claims you need to have some facts to back you up!

    June 2, 2014 at 1:16 am |
  16. chri§§y

    Lol so we have the ghost of Cary Grant now huh? You do know he didnt give a damn about politics right?

    June 2, 2014 at 1:19 am |
  17. TheSeaBreeze

    The headline on the main site said something to the effect of "Why Obama is like Dwight." When referring to Dwight David Eisenhower by a one word moniker, I believe everyone, including his own wife and close friends, called him "Ike."

    June 2, 2014 at 8:08 am |
  18. BigBear

    I believe they meant Dwight Gooden.

    June 2, 2014 at 9:42 am |
  19. palintwit

    If I was Sarah Palin I would sprinkle copious amounts of Drano on my cornflakes.

    June 2, 2014 at 9:55 am |
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    June 3, 2014 at 5:38 pm |
  21. Not Only

    There's no comparison between Dwight and the current presidential parody. Obama is the weakest president in American history but the strongest hypocrite.

    June 6, 2014 at 11:36 am |
  22. kIMLEE

    You stated this morning that Putin is an aggresser ..........I believe you are worng . No one on this earth as started more wars than America...Wars we don't finish. America to me seems to be "The Great Agressers" Come on get real.

    June 8, 2014 at 4:12 pm |
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