The Limits of Soft Power

Posted: Aug 11, 2014 8:04 AM

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the August issue of Townhall Magazine.

When then-state Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) first called President Bush’s Iraq War a “dumb war” in 2002, Republicans still enjoyed a sizable lead over Democrats on the question of which party Americans trusted more on foreign policy—a lead that Republicans had enjoyed for generations.

But by 2005, Obama’s prediction that “even a successful war against Iraq” would “require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences,” had been proven largely, if not entirely, true.

Whether removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision or not, there is no question that the Bush administration undersold Americans on the cost of the Iraq War while also overselling what could be accomplished there.

This mismatch between Bush’s foreign policy promises and results led Americans to begin trusting Democrats more than Republicans on foreign policy. And it was a big factor in the GOP’s huge electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008.

By the time Obama was sworn in in 2009, Democrats enjoyed a 10-point lead in trust on foreign policy, and Obama did not hesitate in implementing his foreign policy vision.

First on Obama’s agenda was a whirlwind apology tour where he took it upon himself to travel the globe genuflecting to everyone from France to Turkey, to the entire North and South American continents about everything including colonialism, Guantanamo Bay, and even the treatment of Native Americans.

Obama then pursued an ambitious agenda of international treaties including the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Each of these agreements sold out American sovereignty without gaining any additional security for Americans in return.

Since then, Obama has famously celebrated his decision to remove all combat troops from Iraq, sent conflicting messages of support and condemnation to Egypt and its governments, conducted a drive-by war in Libya, threatened and then backed down from bombing Syria, and then looked on helplessly as Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, annexing the Crimea peninsula and possibly more.

At every step along the way, Obama has been betrayed by his fervent faith in the effectiveness of soft power.

In Libya, he thought drones and jets would be enough to topple a tyrannical regime and secure the peace. But the Obama administration severely underestimated the need for troops on the ground to protect American diplomatic assets. As a direct result of Obama’s (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s) miscalculation, four Americans were murdered in Benghazi, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The country has since become a “scumbag Woodstock” according to military analysts.

In Ukraine, Clinton’s botched “reset button” diplomacy has gone nowhere. When Putin sent his special forces into Ukraine (see page 44, “A Land on the Edge”) after the winter Olympics, Obama confidently predicted his “severe” sanctions would cripple the Russian economy and force Putin to back down. But the Russians literally laughed at Obama’s response and sent more forces to the region, confident that Obama would not counter with any real force.

And finally in Iraq, Obama proudly took credit for pulling all combat troops out of the country in 2011, promising that he was “confident” the country could “build a future worthy of their history as a cradle of civilization.” But now that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has taken over almost half the country, is massacring Iraqis, and is threatening to taken over Baghdad, suddenly Obama is blaming the Iraqi government for his troop withdrawal and is sending U.S. troops back to Baghdad.

As a result of all these disasters, Obama has completely fumbled away the Democratic Party’s advantage on foreign policy. It is now Republicans that, again, enjoy a 10-point margin in trust on the issue.

But what will Republicans do with that new advantage? Townhall’s Kevin Glass explores that question in his piece “Rand Paul vs Marco Rubio” on page 38.

Whatever path Republican primary voters do choose, the lesson from both the Bush and Obama foreign policy records is clear: try to be more humble about what your foreign policy agenda can accomplish. •