MANILA — President Barack Obama vigorously defended his foreign policy record on Monday, arguing that his cautious approach to global problems has avoided the type of missteps that contributed to a “disastrous” decade of war for the United States.
Obama’s expansive comments came at the end of a weeklong Asia trip that exposed growing White House frustration with critics who cast the president as weak and ineffectual on the world stage. The president and his advisers get particularly irked by those who seize on Obama’s decision to pull back from a military strike in Syria and link it with virtually every other foreign policy challenge, from Russia’s threatening moves in Ukraine to China’s increasing assertiveness in Asia’s territorial disputes.
“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?” Obama said during a news conference in the Philippines.
Summing up his foreign policy philosophy, Obama said it was one that “avoids errors.”
White House advisers argue in part that Obama’s approach puts him on the side of a conflict-weary American public, some of whom voted for him in the 2008 election because of his early opposition to the Iraq war. Yet the president’s foreign policy record of late has provided plenty of fodder for his critics.
It was Obama’s own declaration that Syria’s chemical weapons use would cross his “red line” that raised the stakes for a US response when Syrian leader Bashar Assad launched an attack last summer. The Obama administration’s own drumbeat toward a US strike only fueled the narrative that the president was indecisive or didn’t have the stomach for an attack when he abruptly pulled back, first in favor of a vote in Congress, then to strike a deal with Syria and Russia that aimed to rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
The Syria scenario has trickled into Obama’s relationship with Asia, where anxious allies spent much of the last week seeking assurances from the president that he would have their back if China used military force to take the advantage in the region’s numerous territorial disputes. And Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flouting of Western sanctions in response to his alleged provocations in Ukraine has stirred fresh criticism that the president’s strategy lacks teeth.
That line of thinking was evident on Monday after the Obama administration announced new sanctions on seven Russian officials, as well 17 companies with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire who has been a frequent Obama foreign policy critic, called the measures “tepid,” “incremental” and “insufficient.” Other GOP lawmakers have called on Obama to provide lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, a prospect he roundly rejected once again on Monday.
“Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?” Obama said. “Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?”
While Obama did not call out any of his critics by name, the White House has often been frustrated with two sets of foreign policy critics: Republican lawmakers like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who takes a more hawkish position than Obama on nearly every issue, and foreign policy commentators who use their platforms on television or editorial pages to push the president to take a more aggressive approach.
“Frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests,” Obama said. He added that he’s not inclined to make policy decisions because “somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think it would look strong.”
Obama spoke on the final full day of his four-country Asia swing. The centerpiece of his president’s trip was a 10-year security agreement signed with the Philippines on Monday that will give the US military greater access to bases on the Southeast Asian nation, which is struggling to bolster its territorial defense amid China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea
The president arrived in the Philippines on Monday afternoon following visits to Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.
Despite Obama’s warm welcome from President Benigno Aquino, the increased US military role drew consternation from some Filipino activists, who say the agreement reverses democratic gains achieved when huge US military bases were shut down in the early 1990s, ending a nearly century-long military presence in the former US colony.
Some 800 of those activists burned mock US flags and chanted “Nobama, no bases, no war” on the road leading to the gates of the palace where Obama met with Aquino. Others burned an effigy of Obama riding a chariot pulled by Aquino, depicted as dog.
The president was to depart for Washington on Tuesday morning after speaking to US and Filipino troops. He was also scheduled to lay a wreath at the Manila American Cemetery, which has the largest number of graves of fallen US military personnel from World War II.