Obama’s foreign policy pragmatism: Cautious or indecisive?

But there is a fine line between cautious pragmatism and indecisiveness – a line that is often blurred and easily crossed. And being indecisive, or even appearing so, can lead to unassertiveness in America’s posture in the world. That in turn undermines American leadership.

Certainly, prudence is a must when wielding power, as it is often the case for the United States when it comes to its military, economic or diplomatic action. And there is no size-fits-all response.  A blind and blanket support of any and all popular uprisings would be unwise. Some opposition groups, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, might replace one dictatorship with another – and one likely hostile to the United States and potentially supportive of terrorism.

Tailored and measured responses are often required, particularly with those who may potentially (and lethally) destabilize an entire region, as it is the case with North Korea.  Great care is also a must when dealing with long time allies, with Egypt and its now-defunct Mubarak regime being a good example of that.  But one should exercise much more latitude, both in policy substance and approach, when dealing with traditional foes such as Libya and the Gadhafi regime. 

But regardless of the circumstances, assertiveness is expected and vital in America’s foreign policy. Pragmatism, even of the cautious kind, still requires that  a) we define our expectations clearly;  b) that these reflect our interests – security, economic or moral; and  c) that we are aggressive in the pursuit of those interests.

Our Libya approach failed that test.  America arrived there late and with a rented, inadequate ferry to evacuate its citizens. Obama’s statement, “Gadhafi has lost legitimacy” only came after a fait accompli bloodshed – too little, too late about a dictator who for 42 years tortured his people and crushed their civil liberties. Even our own UN ambassador, Susan Rice, appeared to be scrambling for words in an attempt to finally show much needed resolution on behalf of the Obama administration. She resorted to name calling and described Gadhafi as “delusional”—arguably a poor choice of words in public diplomacy.

The administration has had to play catch up in Libya. It appears to be succeeding in the last couple of days, but to great losses.  Russia, for example, managed to undermine our potential pursuit of a no-fly-zone in Libya by stating it would veto any UN resolution to that effect.  That represents a missed opportunity to score a diplomatic and strategic military victory against Gadhafi while his international support was at its lowest.

What we have so far witnessed in popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East may or may not be a prelude of what is still to come in as many other countries still headed by brutal and corrupt dictators.  The diversity of U.S. interests in all of these countries – security, economic, or moral interests – certainly calls for a pragmatic approach to our foreign policy. However, there is little room for being overly cautious and certainly there is no room for indecisiveness. 

Defining Obama’s approach as cautious pragmatism is nothing less than being generous toward the president and his foreign policy team. 

At best, Obama’s pragmatism is of the timid kind. The president’s instinct may be good. His response can, at times, be too slow. His delivery begs for improvement. His assertiveness is definitely lacking.

Nino Saviano is a Republican strategist and president of Savi Political Consulting. He has lectured on global politics at universities in the United States, Europe and Asia. 


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