NPR Story
2:06 pm
Tue April 29, 2014

In the Face of Criticism, Obama Defends His Foreign Policy

Originally published on Tue April 29, 2014 4:43 pm

Many have criticized President Obama for his response to crises in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, demanding that he take a more assertive approach.

While speaking at a press conference in the Philippines, President Obama defended his foreign policy and questioned his critics’ remarks.

NPR’s White House Correspondent Scott Horsley discusses the criticisms aimed at the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and the president’s reactions to these comments.

Guest

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, President Obama is back in the U.S. today after his trip to Asia, and he wrapped up his trip with some tough words for critics of his foreign policy. Here he is speaking to reporters in The Philippines yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For some reason, many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven't really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same not over and over again. Why, I don't know. But my job as commander-in-chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term.

HOBSON: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us from Washington. And Scott, we should say this comes in response to a lot of criticism the president has been getting. And we're going to get to that, but tell us more about what the president is saying now.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, the president got, as he said, worked up in response to sort of being baited by reporters yesterday, who are challenging him about some of the criticism of his foreign policy, and asked him to define the Obama doctrine. I think this president is usually careful about spelling out sweeping global doctrines, but the message he tried to convey was sort of a tortoise-and-hare story, a defense of the kind of slow, painstaking diplomacy he was conducting during this Asia trip, work that he confessed is often sort of boring, and a critique of any sort of headlong rush into confrontation.

The president said a lot of the people who criticize his foreign policy, what they really want is for the U.S. to be quicker to use military force. And after years of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not only is he not interested in that, but he said he doesn't think the American people want to rush back into war, either.

HOBSON: And we're talking about critics of Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, who has said President Obama has invited aggression from dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin in Russia by being weak and indecisive in his foreign policy. Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker said similar things on "Face the Nation" over the weekend on CBS, arguing that the White House needs to impose much tougher sanctions in order to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

SENATOR BOB CORKER: These calls are bipartisan. I think there's concern on both side of the aisle that the administration, in exercising such cautiousness as they did in Syria, where we've ended up in a situation that is one of the biggest humanitarian crises we've seen in a long, long time, by being so cautious, by being unwilling to confront someone who only responds to action, not words. I think you've seen recently where they've having some kind of hashtag, tweet war. I mean, those are not the things that someone like Putin responds to.

HOBSON: And President Obama directly addressed that kind of criticism yesterday, pointing out that his administration has mobilized the international community to isolate Russia over Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: What else should we be doing? Well, we shouldn't be putting troops in, the critics will say. We - that's not what we mean. Well, OK. What are you saying? Well, we should be arming the Ukrainians more. Do people actually think that somehow, us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?

HOBSON: Scott Horsley, the White House basically pointing out there that critics don't have better options.

HORSLEY: Well, that's their argument, that's right. And, you know, while the president focused on the futility of a military response in Ukraine, the criticism that you hear more often about the U.S.-Ukraine policy is that the sanctions imposed thus far by the U.S. and the international community have just not been strong enough to get Vladimir Putin's attention.

Now, what the White House will say is that it's more important to get a united front against Putin - especially from Europe, which has stronger ties to Russia - than to have the U.S. act on its own with sanctions that might look tough, but might not have much practical impact.

More broadly, though, what you sometimes hear from critics is that because this president is so cautious, so careful not to rush into decisions, that sometimes he misses opportunities where the U.S. could have had a bigger impact, could have played a more constructive role.

You'll hear, for example, critics say that there was a window in Syria before Islamic militants showed up in such numbers when the U.S. might have been able to arm the rebels and made more of a difference.

HOBSON: And the president did seem to concede at that press conference that his incremental, collaborative approach - if you want to put it that way - may be a tougher sell politically. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: And that may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn't make for a good argument on Sunday morning shows, but it avoids errors. You hit singles. You hit doubles. Every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run, but we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.

HOBSON: Scott, the president is coming home to an approval rating in the ABC News- Washington Post poll down to a new low, 41 percent. Only 34 percent approve of how he's handling the crisis in Ukraine. How big a problem are those kinds of numbers?

HORSLEY: Well, of course, Obama himself doesn't have to stand for reelection, but those bad numbers could be a real drag on his party in the midterm elections, and we're all watching closely to see, with control of the Senate so much in the balance. One thing that's interesting is that both the president's approval and disapproval numbers on Ukraine are lower than his approval and disapproval numbers overall.

There's more Americans who say they're not really sure what to think about Ukraine, and that just kind of speaks to the ambivalence that a lot of Americans have when they survey some of these global crises.

HOBSON: Is it expected that Ukraine, though, is going to be a big issue in the campaign this term, this season?

HORSLEY: You know, we'll have to see how it plays out over the summer. Of course, it could become a much hotter issue. But I think most analysts suspect it's not going to be the defining issue.

HOBSON: NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: Always good to talk to you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.