Obama’s Incredible Shrinking Foreign Policy Agenda

President Obama’s trip to East Asia last month was all about shoring up America’s position in a region where a resurgent China is steadily engaged in revising the status quo. But the most memorable part of the visit ended up being the diminished vision Mr. Obama projected of his own foreign policy.

Speaking at a press conference in Manila, Obama defended his conduct of foreign policy in a way that at once was impassioned and uninspiring. His approach, he argued, “may not always be sexy. [It] may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for 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.”

The minimalist vision Mr. Obama articulated was incongruous coming amid a tour designed to impress upon U.S. allies that the strategic shift to Asia, his signature foreign policy initiative, was still very much on track. All the more so at a gathering alongside Philippine President Benigno Aquino, whom he ostensibly wanted to reassure about U.S. steadfastness in the face of China’s revanchist behavior. Indeed, his words were a far cry from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strong rebuke of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea four years earlier.

The president’s statement immediately attracted criticism even from pundits normally inclined to be sympathetic. Noting that “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody,” Maureen Dowd at the New York Times commented that the image Obama presented “doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like in you’re in command of your world.”

The newspaper’s editorial board felt compelled to write a long piece that struck a similar theme. It argued that the “sadly pinched view of the powers of his office” offered by Obama invites “criticism that he is not articulating a strong, overarching blueprint for the exercise of American power.” It added that “You don’t inspire a team to go out and bloop a single over an infielder.”

Continuing with the baseball analogies, David Gergen at CNN opined that “It was odd enough given [Obama’s] huge power and influence, he thinks small ball. But he also raised the question: Why so long between home runs? When was the last one? Three years ago with Osama bin Laden?”

And Fareed Zakaria at the Washington Post contended that Obama has a “strangely minimalist approach” to foreign policy and acts on the world stage “as if his heart is not in it, seemingly pulled along by events rather than shaping them.”

Curiously for a president who won re-election in convincing fashion, Obama during his second term has been gripped by a circumscribed sense of his own power, especially in the field of foreign affairs. Just weeks after his second inauguration, he offered up Hamlet-like musings on his Syria policy, telling an interviewer: “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

When he traveled to New York last September to address the UN General Assembly, Obama delivered a thoroughly uninspiring address that bored other delegates. A Western prime minister was quoted in the press as saying “In the past we have seen some America overreach. Now I think we are seeing America underreach.”

In a long New Yorker profile earlier this year, Obama biographer David Remnick observed that “there is in [Obama] a certain degree of reduced ambition.” Remnick’s portrait was so jarring that a commentator noted in Slate that the Obama in the profile “wears the limitations of his office like a shawl,” while Ron Fournier at the National Journal asserted that “Obama seems to have surrendered to the limits of his most-powerful office.”

And just last week, while speaking in Los Angeles to a group focused on raising awareness of the Holocaust and other genocides, Mr. Obama confessed that he feels a sense of impotency in confronting the world’s worst humanitarian challenges. This from a person who two years ago, in an address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocides is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.”

One wonders whether the president today would recognize the Obama then. Apparently, Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the UN, does not. Ms. Power made her name denouncing the Clinton administration’s failures to confront the horror of genocide. In an address to the Holocaust Memorial Museum the other week, she offered what many interpret as a reproach to the Obama’s administration handling of the Syria crisis.

The president’s defenders are right that his caution and downsized agenda in foreign affairs fit well with the national mood. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News public opinion poll finds that nearly half (47 percent) of Americans want the country to be less active on the global stage. Yet the same poll shows that more than half (53 percent) disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign policy, with just 38 percent approving. (The current Real Clear Politics average of national polling data on this issue shows the same breakdown.)

President Obama can claim to be delivering on what the national mood clamors for and yet the public remains unhappy with the result. Foreign policy pundit Robert Kagan offers a bracing explanation for this paradox: “They may want what Obama has so far been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.” He adds: “To follow a leader to triumph inspires loyalty, gratitude and affection. Following a leader in retreat inspires no such emotions.”

The idealism that swept President Obama into the Oval Office, electrified crowds in Europe and garnered a Nobel peace prize in record time has now evaporated. That would not be so bad if a hopeful pragmatism had emerged in its place. Instead, a profound pessimism has crept in. Remnick, the president’s biographer, claims that this condition is because “the world seems to disappoint” Obama. But the reverse appears to be truer.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and senior director with Geoskope, a cross-market intelligence company.