That the Obama Administration believes that it thinks coherently and strategically about foreign policy cannot be doubted. That it has some kind of worldview—that it acts on certain assumptions about the world, about the United States, and about itself—is also clear. But this is merely to say that American foreign policy in the past five years has been something other than purely random acts.
“By their fruits you shall know them.” The fruits of this Administration include, most recently, the invasion of Ukraine by a Russia that American diplomats had assiduously courted, and that the President had sternly warned. They include a Syrian civil war whose death toll has reached six digits, accompanied by a deal (with the same Russia) to remove Syrian chemical weapons while, in essence, guaranteeing the United States would stay hands-off with respect to the Assad regime. The chemical weapons are, perhaps, 50 percent gone, but the Assad regime looks likely to stay. They include a relationship with one client, Afghanistan, on whose behalf we have spent much treasure and spilled much blood, that has slid from suspicion to downright antipathy—a condition fostered by more than five years of attempts to replace Hamid Karzai, while boxing him in with American diplomats known to despise him.
The fruits further include a loss of influence in Egypt, where the Administration managed the fine trick of alienating both Islamists and the army; the belief of our Gulf allies that the United States will not protect them from Iran—a state that attempted to murder one of their Ambassadors in Washington and that suffered, in return . . . nothing. In Iran, a state patiently sidling up to nuclear status and engaging in bogus talks that have lifted, and will continue to lift, crippling sanctions while neither dismantling a single centrifuge nor allowing an inspection of the heart of the weapons program.
And there is even more: A near rupture with Israel, a country that lives now in a sea of fire around its borders but is the recipient of finger-wagging lectures about cutting a deal with a Palestinian Authority that has shown no willingness to really and truly end that conflict. In Iraq, a promised withdrawal, and a gradually faltering regime left in place, that cannot control the cities we helped it win back from Sunni militants. In Libya, the fruits include an undeclared (and unauthorized) war that left four Americans, including an Ambassador, dead, in an incident characterized, falsely and persistently, as the product of a bizarre video. Globally, a rising tide of Islamist extremists, despite senior officials’ insistence that al-Qaeda is “on the verge of strategic defeat.” In Asia, a China increasingly willing to bully our biggest ally, Japan, and our most vulnerable ally, the Philippines, over a preposterous set of claims to islands and sea territory.
And in the United States, finally, insistence on slashing the defense budget; failure to explain to the American people the rationale for a war once described as “a war of necessity”, or indeed to explain the rationale for much of a foreign policy at all; a bloated National Security Council staff (nearly three times the size of some of its predecessors); foreign policy decision-making centralized in the White House to an unprecedented degree; and a persistent plea for nation-building at home.
What is the worldview that has yielded this abundant crop of mistakes, blunders, and indeed, disasters?
It is, first and foremost, a result of the cult of the President himself. As Obama’s embittered Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, notes in his blistering account of the Administration, he has surrounded himself with sycophants whose only real idea is the power of Obama’s rhetoric. And indeed, the President, who takes a politician’s self-regard beyond a norm that is disturbing enough, cannot escape his inclination to preach, to threaten, to warn—only for the words to yield nothing. The infamous Syrian “red line” is but one example. A hint of this belief in the magic of his own words came at the very outset of the Administration, when in an act of folly he flew off to Copenhagen to secure the Olympics for his hometown of Chicago. He made his eloquent pitch and was blown off by the committee as he flew back home. But neither he nor his subordinates seem to have learned the lesson: Don’t ask for something publicly unless you are sure to get it. Words are not the same as deeds.
The Administration has been remarkably reluctant to make the case for American strength, and particularly American military strength. Its actions reflect its silence: The impending defense cuts are premised on the notion that the United States will not, and should not, fight a land war again. The wars it will fight, if any, will be against terrorists; and as it presides over a shrinking Navy, it seems to have a limited conception of what the United States should do in the Pacific.
Some of this attitude may reflect a deep doubt about American prudence; some of it a belief, shared by many in the foreign policy elite, that the world is fundamentally a benign place in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Some of it may reflect as well a preoccupation with domestic concerns, and a belief that until some of those are dealt with (health care, yes, but the structural problem of unsustainable entitlements, no) the United States should not engage abroad.
But some of it, too, reflects an approach to foreign policy in which one’s first moves are to extend a hand to one’s opponents rather than to one’s friends. Thus the risible Russian reset, and a nuclear arms control treaty as disadvantageous to the United States as it was favorable to Russia (whose tactical nuclear weapons were kept off the table). Thus, too, the repeated outreach to Iran, even when the revolutionary regime was slaughtering unarmed protesters in the streets. Thus the summits with China and the shunning of a sometimes tactless Japanese leadership, without even going to the trouble of acknowledging its entirely understandable anxieties. Enemies first means friends last—which is why countries like Colombia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Poland have found themselves at various points ignored, run roughshod over, or rebuked by this Administration.
The Administration is, in one way, confused. The President describes himself as a “pragmatist”, or as foreign policy pundits more loftily call it, a “realist.” But what realism is there, one wonders, in constructing imaginary red lines? More often, the Administration seems to be of an idealistic bent, believing that history is something to be transcended by sophistication, or the President’s charisma. Thus, President Putin’s seizure of Crimea is dismissed as an artifact of the past century or two; the 21st-century thing, presumably, would be to tweet rather than invade. In the final analysis, the Administration may be better understood by the things in which it does not believe (the menace of rapacious dictators, seething national passions, ineradicable conflicts, unpredictable events, reputation for strength) than by those things in which it does. Saddest of all—and most disastrously for this country—one has to conclude that the Administration does not particularly believe in the United States.
When President Putin chose to rub his successful humiliation of the United States in Syria in President Obama’s face, he did so by writing an op-ed for the New York Times that said, quite straightforwardly, that the United States is not particularly special, neither in terms of the ideals it represents nor the role it aspires to play in the world. Consciously or not, he echoed candidate Obama’s famously dismissive remark that Americans think of themselves as special in the same way that Greeks do.
To be sure, the Administration’s apologists strive mightily to see prudence where there has been weakness, and reasonable misjudgment where there has been folly. Following the White House’s lead, they lay the blame for troubles on the Bush Administration when they can, and at least attempt to shift the question by making invidious comparisons to its predecessors when they cannot. But in the long run, the Administration will and should be seen for what it is: the most vacillating, inept, and feckless in the conduct of American foreign policy since the Cold War, in a world that is far, far more dangerous than it realizes, even now.