Obama Foreign Policy Needs More Spine, Not More Spending

Foreign policy often plays a bit part in State of the Union speeches. That has been especially true for President Barack Obama, whose first term was consumed by economic crisis and partisan trench warfare.

Chief among the foreign-policy achievements he has touted in his three previous annual addresses have been disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan, an agreement with Russia cutting nuclear arsenals, and the killing of Osama bin Laden and hundreds of other terrorists and militants.

Yet notwithstanding a commendable decision to pay more attention to Asia, progress on other fronts has been meager. Moreover, a litany of withdrawals, reductions and assassinations doesn’t offer the U.S. public much inspiration for the future.

The scant lines on world affairs in Obama’s feisty second inaugural speech last month offer a glimmer of hope, if not the possibility of change. And happily, realizing those aspirations will require mostly more spine from our elected officials, not more spending.

The first, best way to ensure we “defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law,” as Obama put it, is to smart-size the Pentagon’s budget and reform the policy of targeted assassination by drone.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon ignored for too long the threat of sequestration -- the huge spending reductions mandated by 2011’s debt-ceiling agreement -- and now is reacting in protest with headline-grabbing stunts such as reducing aircraft-carrier strength in the Persian Gulf. The readiness of U.S. forces will be harder hit than major weapons programs if the $45 billion in reductions to the defense budget take effect this year.

Potential Savings

Even if some deal averts those blunt cuts, the Obama administration needs to take a fresh, hard look at scaling back expensive programs such as the F-35 fighter and Ford-class supercarrier. The potential billions in savings from reported plans to further trim the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal illustrate the benefits of shedding such Cold War-era hardware. The administration also needs to consider cuts in force size to 1990s levels: Since 2001, personnel costs have risen by almost 90 percent, while the number of military personnel has increased by only about 3 percent.

The U.S.’s ability to fight two wars at the same time -- a symbolic as well as strategic necessity -- will depend on Obama’s ability to win the budget fight. He needs to begin making the case now.

Another threat to U.S. values and interests is the legal void surrounding the use of drones to kill terrorists, including U.S. citizens. The president could ease concerns about the murky criteria for these strikes by announcing that he will put all drone operations under military control, and that the U.S. will lead an international effort to codify the use of the unmanned aircraft in the laws of war.

The president was wise, in his inaugural address, to say that “we will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully.” We hope he elaborates on that message, repeats the offer of direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program (an offer that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spurned) and again encourages a recalcitrant North Korea to come to the table.

But here’s the thing about engagement: It can’t happen at the expense of your values. During Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009, the Obama administration undermined U.S. credibility by choosing not to vigorously support Iranians who risked their lives to protest suspect election results.

Speaking Frankly

A similar pattern of behavior was apparent in the U.S. ambivalence about the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Egypt and the administration’s quiescence over repression in Bahrain. Countries such as Saudi Arabia may be valuable allies that host bases for conducting drone strikes, but the U.S. needs to be able to speak frankly about their resistance to allowing political and social freedoms, including efforts to repress the Internet.

So we hope that in his State of the Union, the president will move beyond talk and actually lay out his plan for supporting democracy “from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us.” How, for instance, do such noble words translate into a viable plan for stopping the carnage in Syria? For Syrians’ sake, the president should reconsider his opposition to using the U.S. military to train and arm a vetted rebel force.

Compared with a decade ago, the landscape for democracy promotion is less favorable: U.S. and European models for governance are tarnished, “authoritarian capitalism” a la China and Russia is on the rise, and governments from Venezuela to Egypt are blocking traditional methods of spreading democratic values and institutions.

Yet some initiatives, such as the Open Government Partnership, which joins governments and civil-society groups to promote transparency and accountability, are working. So are the efforts started by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to defend and expand Internet freedom. They deserve more support. As do the countries of the Arab Spring, which could use the vision, if not the financial commitment, of a mini-Marshall Plan to accompany their journey to democracy.

With an economy on the mend and overseas deployments drawing down, the U.S. is in a position to reassume its leadership on behalf of democracy and a liberal world order, both causes that are profoundly in its interest. Some plain speaking would be a good place to start.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.