The vacillator in chief

Observers and pundits of all stripes have not missed the unease with which President Barack Obama approaches his commander in chief duties. Indeed, Chicago-style "community activist" and "Commander of the United States Marine Corps" don't normally appear on the same resume. Accordingly, an aggressive use of his substantial military architecture does not sit well with the anti-war activist. This discomfort presents itself in a decidedly disjointed foreign policy record:

•Israel: The president's stated wish to create "space" between America and Israel was followed by a historic and uncomfortable Oval Office dressing down by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Then Mr. Obama made a hard rhetorical tilt toward Israel on the heels of the 2012 election (transparent, yet politically effective as Mr. Obama's re-election campaign garnered 69 percent of the Jewish vote). No wonder Mr. Netanyahu worries about what a notoriously guarded President Obama would do when Iran succeeds in securing a nuclear bomb.


•Egypt: The Obama administration distanced itself from the Mubarak regime on the eve of large anti-government protests, aggressively reached out to a Muslim Brotherhood-led Morsi government, made tepid criticism of a wildly unpopular, undemocratic Islamist constitution and offered than enthusiastic support for the (anti-Morsi) pro-democracy demonstrators during the summer of 2013.

•Afghanistan: The president ordered a military surge fast on the heels of a promise to withdraw our troops by a certain date, followed up with few reports of progress but plenty of declarations about America's intent to leave the premises — on schedule.


•Libya: Mr. Obama would not assist the Libyan rebels (even on humanitarian grounds) until a last minute decision to join an anti-Moammar Gadhafi, European-led coalition followed by little of consequence until a sitting American ambassador was murdered at our consulate in Benghazi. Then we got high profile misrepresentations (to be kind) about the cause of the terrorist attacks, followed by (embarrassed) silence and a stated desire to put the entire episode behind us. For anyone wishing to take issue with this statement of facts, recall the incriminating retrospective of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (in a decidedly defensive appearance before Congress) once the administration's "Muslim video" explanation for the attack had been exposed as phony: "After all, what does it matter?"

•Syria: The administration's policy of non-intervention (even when the anti-Assad rebels included pro-Western elements) during the initial stages of President Bashar Assad's murderous campaign against anti-government rebels morphed into a promise to arm the rebels should Mr. Assad be found to have used weapons of mass destruction ("a red line"). Then the administration claimed that evidence of WMDs had not been produced despite the fact that our Western allies had confirmed their use, followed by an announcement (by a deputy national security adviser) that the U.S. would sparingly arm the rebels; followed by assurances to Mr. Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin that any U.S. military response would be limited and not intended to achieve regime change; followed by Mr. Obama's ludicrous line this week that the aforementioned red line was not his line, but the world's.

•Russia: A Hillary Clinton initiated "reset" intended to distance the accommodating Obama administration from the "cowboy" George W. Bush, together with a (Russian requested) broken promise to Poland to station defensive missiles in that pro-western country, produced nothing but relentless pokes in the eye, from UN vetoes to Edward Snowden to an aggressive and provocative support of the Assad regime.

•Drones: The administration admitted that its hyper-aggressive drone campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan (far beyond Bush administration efforts) included the targeted killing of four American terrorists and an unknown number of collateral victims. That was almost immediately followed by a highly promoted War on Terror "reset" speech wherein the president signaled further American disengagement now that al-Qaida was "on the path to defeat" — a dubious proposition, more campaign slogan than fact, but most assuredly a notion the administration wishes to perpetuate in the public consciousness.

Then there is the administration's insistence on politically correct reinventions of familiar terms and concepts in order to create a more benign dialogue with hostile regimes. Hence, terrorism morphed into "man-caused disasters," a murderous act of religiously driven terror at Fort Hood was identified as "workplace violence," and foreign military engagements became "overseas contingency operations."

The constant theme here is leading from behind, allowing a philosophical distaste for military action and indulgence toward those opposed to U.S. strategic interests to dictate the terms and tenor of U.S. engagements around the world.

"Feckless," "vacillating" and "ad hoc" are not descriptors of an effective foreign policy. They are, however, a formula for distrust and confusion among allies and enemies alike. Such an approach carries real strategic costs, including the denigration of our ability to impose our will or, at a minimum, influence events in dangerous places around the world. It also calls into question a vital element of our national identity, a heretofore Kennedy-esque engagement in furthering the cause of freedom around the world.

The president needs to up his foreign policy game ... now.


Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is