America's Secretary of State gave a stunning interview this week, in which she defended the Obama administration's foreign policy choices and claimed that soft power was working to reshape America's image in the world. It was a deeply discouraging insight into the philosophy that guides the administration. When challenged about the administration's responses to the Arab spring, Clinton said:
"This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see, where it's not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the cost, while we bear the sacrifice, while our men and women, you know, lay down their lives for universal values...look, we are, by all measurements, the strongest leader in the world, and we are leading."
Clinton is right that the United States has allowed responsibilities to accrue to us that many states benefit from, and that a more evenly distributed burden sharing arrangement would be preferable. But she seems not to understand that shoving the work off onto others and diffidently watching their struggles is not only failing to lead and disappointing the hopes of millions who consider us an ally and a champion of liberty, it is also ushering in a more dangerous international order, and one in which U.S. power will be diminished.
The soft power Clinton so adamantly believes is advancing America's cause in the world has always been hugely enhanced by the view that whatever our national failings, we stand for freedom and believe ourselves safest when other people also live in freedom. The Obama administration has squandered a fair amount of that capital by its wavering reaction to protest movements in the middle east and its unwavering commitment to exits rather than strategies in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.
When pressed on whether the administration should demand that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad step down, Clinton replied: "where we are is where we need to be, where it is a growing international chorus of condemnation...I am a big believer in results over rhetoric." But what are the results of our Syria policy? Is what is happening in Syria really the outcome we should want?
The Obama administration is more concerned about an amorphous "international chorus" than they are about the attitudes of the people working to overthrow repressive governments, and that is a major shift in American foreign policy. Secretary Clinton's claims notwithstanding, it is showing negative results. For if American soft power were working, wouldn't attitudes toward the United States be improving? Favorability ratings -- especially in the Middle East and South Asia -- have actually declined from where they were during the Bush administration. Wouldn't governments be more inclined to support our policies? Crucial test cases should be Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq -- all of which are less cooperative with the Obama administration than they were with the Bush administration.
The secretary of State unreflectively made the statement that it mattered more what Turkey and Saudi Arabia said about Syrian repression than the United States. "If other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it," was Clinton's justification for doing so little. That's quite a breathtaking world view for the chief diplomat of the world's most powerful country. We are unimportant in the global debate about freedom and governance, but Saudi Arabia and Turkey have standing.
On one issue Secretary Clinton was unmistakeably correct: "it's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go." Yesterday, the White House finally issued a statement that Assad should go. And it appears to have exactly the impact Secretary Clinton anticipated: nothing. But doesn't that refute her assertions that soft power and the Obama administration's approach are working?
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.