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Fixing Blame

President Obama gets the blame for everything, even those crises he can't control.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

It’s easy to blame President Obama.

He’s in charge, after all, and when things go wrong, it’s the guy at the top who shoulders the responsibility. And around the world, these days, lots of things have been going wrong.

Iraq, despite an agreement on naming a new prime minister, is chaotic and may well break up into three entities, a Sunni west, a Kurdish north, and a Shiite center and south. A long-running civil war in Syria shows no signs of abating, though it is apparent the rebels lack the capability to topple the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime. Hamas and Israel just fought their third war, and Israel and the Palestinians show no sign of being able to reach an agreement on creating a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza. For the most part, the Arab Spring, which held so much promise a few years ago, has fizzled, with the Arab masses no better off now than before the uprisings.

And that’s just the Middle East.

There’s always a revanchist Russia, which under Vladimir Putin dreams of remaking the old Soviet Union.

The president cautions that the United States can only do so much. “Apparently,” he says, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

That statement is, of course, self-evident, but critics are quick to see it as a cop out and a shirking of responsibility. Even friends and friendly critics fear the president lacks an overarching world view, a fear he contributed to when he recently described his foreign policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Hillary Clinton, who is positioning herself for a possible presidential run, commented in an interview in The Atlantic, “Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle.” (Clinton cleaned up the language for public consumption). Clinton has been especially tough on Obama’s unwillingness to arm the Syrian rebels.

Clinton later told the president that her comments were not a criticism of him, but Clinton may be calculating that Obama’s foreign policy is unpopular and that it is in her interest to stake out a position between his reluctance to wield American military power and the previous administration’s eagerness to do so (a position shared by many, but not all, potential Republican 2016 candidates).

Alternatively, Clinton also may be assuming support on her left but worried about the possibility of facing an isolationist candidate such as Rand Paul, concluding that a more muscular foreign policy might appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. Either way, her recent interview in The Atlantic is an attempt to disassociate herself from Obama.

She may be miscalculating, as do many of Obama’s critics on the right, like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have never seen a war they don’t like.

First, Clinton may be mistaken in believing support from the Democratic base is a given, an assumption that cost her dearly in 2008 in her contest with Obama, who ran on an anti-Iraq War platform in the primaries. As Joan Walsh writes, “Clinton may think she can write off the anti-interventionist left — again — and win the White House this time. But she may find out she's wrong this time, too.”

Second, while polls show widespread public disapproval of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, other polls indicate that a majority of Americans want their country less involved in the affairs of others. A Pew Research Center survey from April, 2014, shows respondents saying, by 51 percent to 17 percent, “that the United States does too much rather than too little in helping solve world problems.”

Americans may not like the way Obama implements his foreign policy (or perhaps the way he explains it), but they appear to approve of his reluctance to use force in every foreign policy crisis. Americans are less hawkish today than they used to be, and there is little evidence the public is clamoring for a more muscular foreign policy.

Perhaps the public agrees with the president when he says American “does not control everything around the world.”