All three men would disavow the charge that they are “declinists” who believe that American power is past its zenith, but there is an unmistakable pessimism at the heart of their worldview: We are flat broke, with pressing priorities at home. Foreign engagements begin well and end in futility. We don’t know enough about the inner workings of these distant places to help more than harm. And besides, our embrace can suffocate those whose causes we might take up.
Syria burns, but we should hold steady and aloof, Obama’s approach has made clear, because we have no way of divining the motivations of the rebellion — or the kind of society the rebels would build if and when the Assad regime falls. The law of unintended consequences haunts our deeds; we know well that American blood and treasure can be wasted at the altar of ideology.
The United States isn’t that exceptional to begin with, this triumvirate believes. Hagel and Kerry have forthrightly said so on many occasions,while Obama has had to be more circumspect. In his first campaign for the presidency, he drew a distinction between good wars of necessity and bad wars of choice. But there is no mistaking the worldview of the politician who rose, unexpectedly, amid economic distress, to the height of political power.
The French have a fitting expression for the Obama phenomenon that broke out abroad, like a fever, in 2008: trompe l’oeil, a trick of the eye. Weary of the assertive nationalism of George W. Bush, Europeans and the Arab world welcomed Obama as a break with the “war on terror” and the American sense of embattled certitude. But the crowds in Paris and Berlin, not to mention Karachi and Cairo, mistook the animating passion of the candidate they had fallen for; they thought of him as a cosmopolitan man at home in the world. While he had lived in Jakarta as a boy, and had a Kenyan father and an Indonesian stepfather, he cut his teeth as a politician in the most American of cities: Chicago.
To the extent that the ideology of such a nimble man can be divined, the mission of his presidency has been the redistributive state at home. His legacy, as he sees it, will be his signature legislation, Obamacare. Yes, Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch, but the rescue of General Motors seems closer to his heart.