It is hardly surprising that in its second term the Obama Administration lacks a coherent international strategy. There was none in the first term either—and far from learning from its first five years, the Administration seems determined to continue the failed policies and unprecedented passivity that have rendered America a hapless bystander in a world that had grown accustomed to, and dependent on, American leadership.
It did not begin well, five years ago. Apart from promising to leave Iraq and “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan”, there was scarcely a reference to foreign policy, and no hint of a global strategy, in the new President’s Inaugural Address. The only glimpse of the “Obama doctrine” that would follow was an offer to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” to “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent.”
Coming from a President who had said little about global strategy or America’s role in the world during the campaign, this sentiment of expectant accommodation could be easily dismissed as inconsequential rhetoric. Aimed, presumably, at the two surviving members of the “Axis of Evil”, Iran and North Korea, Obama’s invitation to engage (that is, negotiate with) adversaries went unrequited, even as the idea of engagement became a familiar underpinning of an “Obama doctrine.”
In mid-March, after just two months in office, and speaking of “the common humanity that binds us together”, Obama offered the Iranian regime a “new beginning.” The “common humanity” was not obvious: The Iranian regime was a repressive dictatorship, supporting terrorism and racing to build nuclear weapons. Three months later, hoping to salvage its outstretched-hand policy, Obama refused to give serious political, moral, or material support to the opposition, watching passively while the Iranian government beat, arrested, tortured, and killed unarmed protesters angered by a rigged election. When it finally came, the President’s condemnation was shallow and unconvincing as he stood by his “new beginning”, an offer to negotiate in the hope of ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Ahmadinejad and the mullahs were not interested, but the Administration was willing to wait. It is five years later, and the nuclear program is larger and more advanced. What is known of the U.S. position in the ongoing negotiations with Iran is discouraging: The likelihood of an agreement in which Iran abandons its nuclear weapons program is zero.
The North Koreans also responded to the outstretched hand, launching multiple rockets and conducting a nuclear test. The Administration responded to North Korea’s defiance by assuming a defensive crouch that Secretary of State Clinton would call “strategic patience.” There it remains five years later.
The Administration played the “new beginning” theme with Russia, as well, when Secretary of State Clinton pushed a “reset” button on the Russian-American relationship, a gesture that has been followed by broad (often gratuitous) hostility and calculated Russian opposition to American interests. Five years later, Administration claims of Russian-American cooperation are few and unconvincing. President Obama remained silent on the now tedious pattern of President Putin, with scarcely concealed delight, undermining American interests at every opportunity. The decision by the former KGB operative to shelter Edward Snowden was, until the Ukraine crisis, the latest evidence that the reset, like the outstretched hand, was simply a failed proffer masquerading as a strategy.
Putin’s seizure of Crimea should at last bury the illusion underlying the reset: that Vladimir Putin is “a man we can work with.” He is, rather, a man deformed by a KGB career who found himself on the losing side of the Cold War and whose bitterness at the demise of the Soviet Union drives a recidivist, imperial ambition. Putin’s goal, however fanciful, is to build a Russian empire where the Soviet one once stood. The issue now is how to raise the costs of the Crimea annexation so that it stops there. As there can be no reasonable expectation of “cooperation” from Russia in advancing the Western agenda, there is little to lose by a program of sanctions to reign in Putin’s ambitions.
A year into his second term there is no sign of an Obama strategy. Speak of Monroe, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, or Reagan, and one can quickly identify the ideas that animated their Administrations’ thinking about the world and America’s role in it. Spheres of influence, multilateralism, containment, détente, a Cold War victory. Each President articulated a vision and an associated strategy. Some were better than others. But what comes to mind when Obama is appended to that list?
Success in the conduct of foreign policy depends on the skillful application of a nation’s resources to create strategic opportunities or exploit those that present themselves. Success requires leadership, the capacity to inspire and persuade—and sometimes to coerce. It is judged by whether that leadership achieves results favorable to the nation’s interests, by the readiness of friends to join with us and adversaries to defer when they would rather not. Where the resources are great, as in the case of the United States, the expectation of favorable results should also be great. But for five years the United States has been punching, if at all, well below its weight.
Editors at the New Yorker, an Obama cheering section from the beginning, must have been apoplectic when, in April 2011, the magazine’s correspondent, Ryan Lizza, quoted an unnamed White House official explaining Administration policy on Libya two years earlier as “leading from behind.” The three-word summary, a feeble attempt to explain away the Administration’s obvious passivity, resonated loudly because for two years there had been so little evidence of American leadership on the world stage and nothing anyone could identify as an American leadership strategy. President Obama had been silent in 2009 as millions of demonstrators took to the streets against a rigged election in Iran. The reset with Russia was fruitless, and, worse, the Administration had caved in to Moscow and killed a missile defense agreement with Poland (on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion). North Korea and Iran continued to ignore Obama’s overtures.
In mid-February 2011 anti-Qaddafi demonstrations broke out in Benghazi and spread quickly throughout Libya. Obama declined to assist the regime’s opponents with the arms and intelligence they desperately needed. As well-armed forces loyal to Qaddafi turned the tide, Obama dithered. Leadership passed from the United States to Britain and France, which began to impose a “no-fly” zone over Libya on March 17. A precious five weeks had passed. By that time the Benghazi opponents had been routed by Qaddafi’s army and seemed to face annihilation. Where material assistance might have been sufficient five weeks earlier, the parlous condition of the opposition now required urgent, aggressive military intervention. We had waited too long. In foreign policy, as with stand-up comedy and short-selling, timing is everything. That is why the passivity and indecision the Administration has exhibited from the beginning is so damaging. Lacking any guiding strategy, it has again and again stood by while situations it could not possibly hope to ignore worsened, raising the costs and reducing the benefits of belated action.
The Administration’s handling of an increasingly assertive Iran is one example. Opposing enhanced sanctions and supporting Obama’s current approach to Iran, Senators Carl Levin and Angus King, Jr., have written, “There are only two ways to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon: negotiations or military action.” It is certainly true that standing by for years while Iran brought its nuclear weapons program close to completion has narrowed our options. It is certainly late to encourage regime change effectively by supporting, politically, morally, and even covertly, those millions of Iranians who despise the mullahs who rule and impoverish them while spending lavishly on internal repression, support for terrorism abroad, fomenting regional conflict and instability, and a relentless program to acquire nuclear weapons.
In failing to encourage a regime change in Iran, Obama is hardly alone. But Obama’s studied indifference to the plight of the regime’s opponents in 2009 and his eagerness to conclude a deal that, whatever else it provides, will not halt Iran’s nuclear program but will strengthen the regime, has diminished what chance might have existed five years ago. (George W. Bush squandered all eight years of his presidency in the same way.) Ironically, the sanctions pressed by Congress that are now to be relaxed could have played a significant part in a strategy of regime change. Divorced from such a strategy, the sanctions could, at best, impose sustainable misery on a regime that was and is, the current charm offensive notwithstanding, becoming progressively more, not less, aggressive.
The carnage in Syria began with peaceful protests at the end of January 2011. As it had done with Libya, the Administration stood by. Three years later, its failure to devise an effective (much less a timely) strategy for Syria is undeniable. In 2011 we could have acted to shape the Syrian opposition into a force we would wish to see prevail. Direct intervention then was neither necessary nor desirable. But did the President think passivity was a strategy? That our enemies would stand aside while we dithered? That Assad’s opponents would not turn elsewhere—anywhere—for help, and wind up beholden to and manipulated by groups and states that wish us ill?
The human cost of three years of war in Syria has been frightful. The dead are in the hundreds of thousands, dislocations in the millions. The whole region is threatened by the dreadful consequences of this war. The cost of assisting Assad’s opponents with political and material support at the beginning would have been modest—nothing alongside the accumulating cost of American inaction.
There is a conventional wisdom about the use of force in international affairs expressed by the cliché that “force should only be used as a last resort.” Increasingly, the notion of acting only as a last resort has been extended to include even measures short of military action, like providing material assistance to countries or groups in conflict situations. President Obama, who is the most risk-adverse figure in a risk-averse Administration, brings the idea of acting as a last resort to new heights. The result is that America, with an accumulation of scorned entreaties behind it and no strategy going forward, has become a bystander nation, cloaked in passivity, paralyzed with indecision. When President Obama said in his first Inaugural Address, “We are ready to lead once more”, he might have added, “maybe, as a last resort.”