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July 7, 2014 - 10:34am

Policy Matters: Don't do stupid s***


The New York Times/2014

I remember having a discussion with one of my friends in Paris about American foreign policy. On a warm spring day in the City of Lights she asked me, “What should Obama do to protect American interests abroad?” I thought I could summarize it in a couple of words: “Don't Do Stupid Shit.” And that’s what this administration has attempted to do.

Up until recently, the American public hasn’t complained too much about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy more or less. It appears, however, that this is starting to change.

According to a poll released by The New York Times last week, 58 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy, in light of the recent actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in Iraq, particularly as ISIS advances on Baghdad. The Washington Post and FiveThirtyEight have posted similar findings.

This policy presents a confusing conundrum for Obama, as Drezner found:

“Indeed, if one digs into the NYT/CBS poll, one finds that majorities of Americans support the specific steps that the Obama administration is proposing on Iraq. Fifty-one percent support sending in advisers to the Iraqi military, 56 percent support the greater use of drones, (I didn’t know whether to get rid of the oxford comma since it’s a quote, but there’s one here)and 77 percent do not support sending in ground troops. Nevertheless, 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the overall Iraq policy. Indeed, the striking pattern is that when Americans are asked about concrete policies, majorities tend to support the administration’s position. When asked about overarching policy towards Iraq, or towards the rest of the world more generally, majorities now tend to dislike what the administration is doing. In other words, foreign policy is the new Obamacare when it comes to polling.”

This frustration is surprising in that the President has followed through on his promises and has attempted to clean up the messy policies that have hurt America over the past decade.

I will not ignore the faults in his policy (the sequel to “The Fault in Our Stars”). Syria and Egypt have been a mess to say the least. All of the leaks that have occurred over the years have created tensions between the U.S. and its allies (namely the NSA leaks). The Ukrainian crisis has put strains on already cool relations with Russia. And the revelations of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen haven’t helped either.

In spite of these blunders, Obama has delivered on his word. Some have called it the “Don't Do Stupid Shit” Doctrine. In other words, the President is trying to revive relations with American allies and adversaries as opposed to sending in the ground troops.

Let’s look at his accomplishments. With the exception of some military advisors helping to train military and police forces in both countries, he pulled most American forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The development of a new trade treaty (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) with Europe that could be very beneficial for both the U.S. and the EU is underway. While talks have been shaky recently, the U.S. and Iran were able to make an important first step towards a nuclear agreement. Even if the P5+1 talks fail, Iran is weaker than ever. Of course, Seal Team Six successfully tracked down and killed Osama Bin Laden.

In today’s changing global environment, the US is not going to easily achieve all of its objectives. Drezner raised another point that is worth sharing: “The thing about American foreign policy is that even the best foreign policy outputs do not necessarily translate into the best outcome, because the United States, for all its superpowery-ness, is not actually an omnipotent deity. In the case of Iraq, there are a lot of other variables at play besides U.S. foreign policy outputs: Maliki’s poor leadership, the neighboring situation in Syria, the Kurdish desire for an independent state, Gulf funding of ISIS and Iran’s sway over the Maliki regime.”

The point is that certain “outputs” are out of America’s control, and Obama alone cannot be blamed for that.

Furthermore, even though the U.S. wouldn’t like to admit it, Washington needs to adjust to the times. Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post American World referred to the “rise of the rest” and the creation of a multipolar world. With the rise of new powers such as China, India and Brazil, in addition to nations such as Germany, global leaders have been able to develop their own independent foreign policies based on their economic power. More factors today will be out of America’s control, and Obama is preparing America for that reality.

At this point in time, it is hard to tell what Obama’s foreign policy legacy will hold and what the consequences of his policies will be. For now, this administration is just being realistic and adjusting to the times, which is something America needs to do sooner rather than later. Hopefully, I will not have to use “Don't Do Stupid Shit” when I next talk to my Parisian friend.

Paul Sherman can be reached at