President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)
President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

James Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes today in The Post:

In recent days, news reports of Sunni tribes in Anbar cooperating loosely with the Baghdad government against al-Qaeda, and expedited U.S. military assistance and intelligence, gave reasons for hope. But then came Sunday’s news conference by Secretary of State John Kerry. Although the secretary spoke about the dangers of al-Qaeda gaining ground in Iraq and the countermeasures the United States was taking, he stated no fewer than four times that this fight was not ours but the Iraqis’. This, combined with an immediate denial of a suggestion that no one is even making — that the United States put troops on the ground — undercuts all the good commitments he made.

This is part of a pattern of renouncing American interests and then setting up a straw man to justify inaction. We leave Libya, Syria and Egypt for their people to hash out — it’s none of our business, we are told. It is at least a candid acknowledgement that this administration essentially doesn’t think we have much interest in the Middle East other than in struggling for an unattainable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and coming up with a paper document that excuses us from removing Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program. It is one thing to say, “Sure we care, but here are the limited things we can do.” But that is not sufficient for the Obama crowd, which is bent on announcing to friends and enemies alike that, or, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Goldwyn, they can include us out.

This is ideology dressed up in a thin veneer of pragmatism. Obama wants to withdraw from the world, so whatever emergencies and conflagrations might demand our attention (e.g. the Green Revolution, the Arab Spring, the bloodbath in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Egypt) must be deemed outside our interests. Then, to make certain no one gets any smart ideas about doing something to advance U.S. interests, out comes the straw man (No one wants boots on the ground in Syria!). Meanwhile, time is lost and events take their course, so when our interests become undeniable (the use of chemical weapons in Syria), we have few, if any, options other than the dreaded boots on the ground.

This is not John Kerry’s doing alone, to be sure. As we know from books by Bob Woodward and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Obama is, at best, a “reluctant commander in chief.” Gates also makes clear that this administration’s foreign policy, as we suspected, is the most politicized and tightly controlled from the White House as any he has seen. (Hence Hillary Clinton’s dilemma: She can’t say she had no real authority as a defense against foreign policy blunders or she will have acknowledged she has only frequent-flyer miles to show for her four years in office.)

White House control of foreign policy works when you have a hyper-knowledgeable foreign policy man in the Oval Office (Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush), one who understands the fundamental challenge of our times (Ronald Reagan, FDR) and/or has excellent advisers who have the president’s ear (all of these). When, however, you have a president who is determined to retreat from the world, is fixated on left-wing nostrums about American power, lacks a firm grasp of historical lessons and is unwilling to focus attention or devote political capital to national security (e.g. his absence on Benghazi, his nonattendance at security briefings) you have a mess — the Obama administration.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.