President Obama’s foreign policy has taken on a pathetic quality. Russia ignores us on the return of Edward Snowden and on ending the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. China ignores us on Snowden and on cyberterrorism. The Taliban ignores our demands as we flee Afghanistan (including not to allow terrorists to camp out there). Iran ignores us and proceeds with its nuclear weapons program. The Palestinian Authority ignores us in going to the United Nations for statehood and then firing Salam Fayyad.
To paraphrase Robert Kagan and Charles Krauthammer, decline is a choice and we have chosen it. It is remarkable that the president thought he could continue to remain relevant on the world stage after he “ended” (i.e. abandoned) wars, slashed defense, allowed Iran to run the negotiation schedule, kowtowed to the Chinese and cut the legs out from every ally from Poland and the Czech Republic (which lost anti-missile sites) to Israel (condemning its building and making Palestinian demands on bargaining the official policy of the United States).
As Kim Holmes puts it, “Overall, the defining characteristic of Obama’s foreign policy appears to be preventing overseas crises from distracting from his domestic agenda. He remains a committed liberal, at least in principle, but his foreign policy is highly influenced by political expediency, which causes him to want to avoid risking overseas interventions.” it is not so much “leading from behind” as it is hiding under the bed.
There are two schools of thought on Obama’s approach.
One is that this is all a self-fulfilling prophecy. He wanted to let multilateral institutions decide matters of huge consequence. He wanted to prevent the United States from engaging in further war-making. He didn’t want to confront autocratic regimes. He felt the United States was not entitled to instruct other countries on human rights. And look how much he has “accomplished.” Retrenchment breeds inactivity which in turn becomes irreversible paralysis.
The other school of thought is that he never understood how geopolitics works. He imagined that he could persuade our foes of the errors of their ways. He believed (and still does) that if we disarm, others will follow our lead (although this has never happened). He thought the problem between the United States and Iran, the United States and Russia, and the United States and China was “mistrust” or failure to atone for our past sins. And, most of all, he believed his own hype that he was a transformational figure whose mere presence would bend events and remake the relationship between powers.
Whether by intention or incompetence, he now finds that exercising simple functions of sovereignty (getting a traitor back) or enforcing basic international norms (no WMD’s, please) becomes exceedingly difficult. Shedding the instruments and habits of a superpower (maintain hard power, back up our words with action, be a reliable ally) does not leave us safer and more secure. To the contrary, we are at the mercy of events and relegated to pleading with unfriendly regimes.
The Obama era is a good lesson for the isolationist left and right which imagines we can and should get by with a smaller military, fewer bases and troops overseas, less involvement in others’ affairs and that old saw horse — cutting foreign aid. The slogan for this is in effect: “Like Obama, but more so!”
That is a frightening prospect, as is another 3 1/2 years of the Obama presidency. More so than at any time in recent history (certainly going to WWII) we are not masters of our own fate nor guarantors of the West’s security. We are on our way to becoming a second-rate power in an increasingly dangerous world.