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Angry Obama struggling with flak on foreign policy

THERE has been a lot of intemperate language of late with regards to President Barack Obama's foreign policy.

In a scathing remark at a recent national security conference in Singapore, Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu, described the US leader's foreign policy approach as suffering from "ED".

Few commentators doubt that General Chenghu's caustic reference was to "erectile dysfunction," even if he did later jokingly explain that it was a military abbreviation for something that may have meant "extended deployment".

Perhaps smarting a little from such remarks it is reliably reported that when President Obama, was recently pressed by reporters during a trip to Asia about the essence of his foreign policy strategy, he gave his own unequivocal and curt reply: "Don't do stupid s***."

It was an interesting - if uncharacteristically angry - response from the US president, and did little to assuage his homegrown political detractors who insist he has done little else lately.

These opponents have been quick to seize on what they say are a raft of questionable decisions that have embarrassed or undermined the United States' standing across the world.

Critics claim that whatever boldness there was in President Obama's foreign policy, it was ditched around the same time that Osama bin Laden's body was laid to rest in the Indian Ocean.

That determined and audacious decision by the Commander in Chief to find and kill the al Qaida number one on Pakistan sovereign territory was Mr Obama's last single most consequential foreign policy act before those same critics re-dubbed him the "Extricator in Chief."

This of course is a barbed reference to Mr Obama's strategic foreign policy objectives of "bringing the boys and girls home" and getting America out of two wars that are among the longest and most controversial in its history.

But there are other pivotal moments that more specifically have brought flak on Mr Obama's foreign policy handling.

Among the most recent, was the controversial expansion of the National Security Agency's (NSA) global surveillance programmes that discredited the US among many of its Western allies. That NSA controversy was only matched by Mr Obama's approval of drone strikes in the continuing "war on terror". Then there was his announcing of the "red line" that should not be crossed regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This subsequently led to Mr Obama's bluff being called and the US president outmanoeuvred diplomatically by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who also went on to give Washington sleepless nights over military deployment and sanctions wrangling in Crimea and Ukraine.

Last, but not least, there has been the latest Obama administration's decision to exchange five senior Taliban leaders for captured US soldier Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Yesterday in Brussels while attending the G7 summit of industrial nations, President Obama insisted he would make "no apologies" for agreeing to the deal, despite frustration in Washington that Congress was not notified ahead of time.

"We saw an opportunity and we seized it and I make no apologies for that," Obama said, adding that he owed it to Bergdahl's parents to try to return their son to America.

"This is not some abstraction, this is not some political football," he told reporters. "As Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, I am responsible for those kids."

That may well be so, but it has been interesting to watch how the White House has shifted the emphasis in its handling of the affair these last few days.

At the outset, it argued that Bergdahl's "safety and health were in jeopardy," justifying a hasty swap without the required congressional notification. By midweek however, the White House was defending its unilateral actions on constitutional grounds.

The rapid speed with which Mr Bergdahl has gone from hero to something more complicated including accusations that he was a deserter, have not only added to White House woes, but once again handed ammunition to those who say Mr Obama is hapless when it comes to any judgment or decision connected to foreign policy.

For his part, Mr Obama has gone on the offensive, taking the opportunity last week in a speech to West Point military academy graduates to outline just where current foreign policy stands and where it will be in the future. Critics though remained less than impressed, pointing out that the president's remarks were more confirmatory than revelatory in its core message that the United States, as the undeniable global hegemon, is simply trying to get back on its feet.

According to analysts at the independent US-based intelligence monitoring group Stratfor, 2014 has been "the year that the United States finally catches its breath after spending a decade stumbling through intractable conflicts in the Islamic world".

In his West Point speech Mr Obama pointed out how Washington expects militant and insurgency headaches to persist in Afghanistan, but that they would now be put in the same basket as those in Mali or Yemen. As Stratfor's analysis makes clear "the United States will be engaged in counterterrorism missions in the more explosive parts of the world, but that engagement will be restrained and refined depending on the need."

This, in a nutshell, is what lies at the heart of Mr Obama's revamped foreign policy strategy. From here on we can expect counterterrorism operations to be further down the list of strategic priorities. In doing so, Washington will be better equipped to handle more complex emerging threats, posed by global big players, Moscow and Beijing.

This was evident earlier in the week with the US pledging up to $1 billion in new funding for European defence, reasserting Washington's role in the region despite warnings from Russia that any military build up near its borders with eastern Europe could provoke a new arms race and Cold War.

To strengthen its hand Washington badly needs to resurrect a string of alliances to help carry the load. Some of these alliances could be carbon copies of those used in the Cold War, while others would require a more creative effort.

This is why Mr Obama has earmarked cash for training and exercises for Nato forces, military equipment, naval deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas, and an increase in the deployment of US planners and advisers in eastern Europe.

Under fire from all sections of the political spectrum at home, this is Mr Obama's response to his critics who claim he is "visionless and minimalist" in his foreign policy approach. It is a White House riposte aimed at convincing doubters that the Obama administration possesses both a deftness of touch and hard-headedness in its foreign policy armoury. It will be fascinating indeed to watch their deployment in the months ahead.

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