You can look at President Obama’s foreign policy record as a series of discrete failures. Syria’s butcher Bashar al-Assad is still in place. Iran’s nuclear weapons program is progressing. The “peace process” is in tatters. China’s military and economic aggression are on the upswing; its human rights abuses are more widespread. Russia’s thugocracy’s brutality is increasing, and its leaders sound like a bad parody of their Communist predecessors.
You can look at each episode as a unique debacle. For example, Obama’s fixation on Israel’s West Bank settlements doomed the “peace process.” Alternatively, one can look at similarities among these approaches and reach some conclusions about the president’s systemic failure to devise a coherent and effective foreign policy. These include over-reliance on international bodies, failure to link hard and soft power, misdiagnosis of our opponents’ motives, and marginalization of human rights.
With regard to the first, no president in recent memory has deferred so consistently as this one to “international opinion.” He felt compelled to get the thumbs up from the Arab League on military action in Libya and from Russia and China to intervene in Syria. While bilateral relations have withered with traditional allies (e.g., Israel and Eastern European countries), he was forced to accede to the lowest common denominator at the United Nations, in joining, for example, the U.N. Human Rights Commission and in the call for an international investigation of the flotilla incident involving Turkey and Israel. Because consensus is often long in coming or impossible to obtain, we have repeatedly delayed action (on Libya), forgone action(in Syria) and allowed rhetoric to diverge sharply from our conduct (on North Korea ).
Even more troubling, is Obama’s belief that we can effectively wield soft power (e.g., diplomacy, economic leverage) without hard power to back it up. He continually signals that he is unwilling to use the latter, thereby giving encouragement to adversaries. Whether it is talking down the military option for Iran, telegraphing that we won’t use force in Syria or bugging out of Iraq prematurely (signaling to Iran our lack of staying power), we have undercut our own credibility, both in the immediate conflict and to other powers trying to gauge our resolve. There is no more disastrous and dangerous undertaking in this regard than our massive defense cuts.
Obama also has consistently taken despotic regimes’ propaganda as sincere expression of their national interest. We conclude that Russia’s Vladimir Putin wants to democratize and modernize. We imagine that the Palestinians want to end, not merely pause, their effort to expunge a Jewish state. The entire administration is stricken with State Department-itis, the ailment usually afflicting only Foggy Bottom and characterized by the inability to distinguish between discussion and progress, or results and process. The notion that some difference are unbridgeable because one side harbors motives that are incompatible with our security and values is unimaginable.
And then there is Obama’s human rights policy, or the lack thereof. Because Obama’s goal is usually to avoid conflict, he is anxious to sacrifice human rights, which remain a huge obstacle to “getting along” with our adversaries and rivals. This is true even when human rights and strategic interests coincide (supporting the Green Revolution, removing Assad, etc.). As was the case in continued funding for Egypt, opposition to the Magnitsky legislation, resumption of arms sales to Bahrain, we signal over and over again that there is no downside for continued human rights atrocities.
Some have tried to put these recurring themes into a broader portrait of Obama. He is, some speculate, uninterested in foreign affairs. Or maybe he thinks poorly of the United States’ track record as a force for good in the world. Some suspect that he’s simply a proponent of stability as the highest aim of foreign policy. Still others think the guiding principle is to squirrel away money and political capital for domestic agenda items.
The underlying rationale is less important, I would argue, than the endemic assumptions and ingrained habits that play out regardless of the specifics. If Obama should get a second term, he’ll have, he confessed, more “flexibility,” presumably to be even more forthcoming with adversaries. To expect him to conduct foreign policy any differently in a second term than he has in the first would be self-delusional.
If Obama’s values and operating principles are inconsistent with what you to believe to be a moral and effective foreign policy, then you’d better hope for a new president or be prepared, as Obama has done so consistently, to throw democracy, human rights and a robust U.S. military under the bus.