Steve Chapman

"I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm's way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed," he told the cadets. The attitude he cautions against is one that he and his fellow Democrats do not routinely apply to domestic matters. But it's a sound one.

Critics charge that Obama's foreign policy shows an unwillingness to lead, or weakness, or uncertain purposes. The same complaint, of course, could be made about conservative policies on poverty, health care, urban blight, access to housing and more. "Don't you care?" indignant liberals ask.

But sometimes ambitious government undertakings are too expensive to justify, sometimes they fail to solve problems, and sometimes they make things worse. In those instances, declining to act -- and explaining why -- is the most authentic form of leadership. That's just as true in the international realm as it is in the domestic one.

If Obama has yet to come up with a bumper-sticker slogan for his approach, the elements are fairly clear: Don't use military force until other means are exhausted -- and maybe not then. Don't use ground troops when you can use bombers or drones. Don't act alone when you can enlist allies. Don't take the lead role when someone else will do so.

Don't do for other countries what they could do for themselves. Don't confuse desirable outcomes with vital interests. Keep in mind that very few things are more costly and harmful to American interests than an unnecessary, unsuccessful war.

The president has followed these guidelines with reasonable consistency, which is one reason he could tell the cadets, "You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan" -- and not because they'll be deploying to fight somewhere else.

There will always be people who demand that the U.S. government do more and spend whatever it takes to solve an array of problems without any assurance of accomplishing its goals. Abroad, at least, Obama is not one of them.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate