The president is now grasping at the only straw — a Russian-mediated deal to “monitor” Bashar al-Assad’s WMDs, which he is not supposed to have and used to commit a mass atrocity — to get him out of a bind. One strongly suspects the Russia avenue became appealing because the president was about to lose badly, maybe in both houses of Congress, on the use of force resolution for Syria.
For this appalling display of incompetence (which signals to anyone who had doubts that he’ll never stand up to Iran or any aggressor if he can find an excuse), he’ll certainly get a footnote in history. However, for the mess in which he found himself he’ll have only himself to blame. And I don’t refer merely to his insincere red line or his delinquent and incompetent salesmanship (e.g. not his red line, an “unbelievably small” strike) or even to his botched policy over the last 2 1/2 years during which time there were many opportunities to accelerate the departure of Bashar al-Assad.
What I am referring to is his overall foreign policy message that has left the public and lawmakers averse to all sorts of foreign entanglements.
Bill Keller of the New York Times described the scourge of isolationism:
Isolationism is not just an aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct. It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit. Isolationism tends to be pessimistic (we will get it wrong, we will make it worse) and amoral (it is none of our business unless it threatens us directly) and inward-looking (foreign aid is a waste of money better spent at home).
He doesn’t make the connection explicitly, but it is painfully obvious that this describes the president’s rhetoric over the last 4 1/2 years and during his time in the U.S. Senate. Let’s take a look at Keller’s description.
Reluctance to engage? Yup. This is the presidency that gave us “leading from behind.” No Arab Spring policy, no support for the Syrian rebels for years and delayed entry into Libya come to mind. Reluctance to accept responsibility? Yup. We were going to end our involvement in wars, no matter what the consequences. The United Nations and other multilateral bodies were going to pick up the slack. And he personally was responsible for almost nothing (not even his own red line). Reluctance to commit? Yup. At every juncture Obama put deadlines and caveats on U.S. action (e.g. a deadline to end the surge in Afghanistan, an “unbelievably small” Syria operation). And all of this is now topped by a convoluted path to inaction on Syria.
The sentiments that Keller lists fit Obama perfectly. Isolationism tends to be pessimistic (we will get it wrong, we will make it worse): From Iran’s Green Revolution to assistance to Syrian rebels, the president and his advisers constantly asserted that association with the United States would be a handicap, not an asset. Amoral (it is none of our business unless it threatens us directly): It’s hard to miss the president’s toleration of 100,000 dead Syrians. Inward-looking (foreign aid is a waste of money better spent at home): The president repeated ad nauseum that we need to “nation build” at home.
Whatever Congress’s role in all this and whatever the mistakes in Iraq, this president more than any since World War II has tried to disengage and retrench. We’ve told the world to look elsewhere and we’ve shown allies we are unreliable. Obama may not have started the isolationist trend, but he set it ablaze, providing rationales for premature departures from Iraq and Afghanistan and for staying out of other trouble spots. Now that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle parrot back the same verbiage, the president and the New York Times may find it irksome. And he is forced to pretend a Russian gambit is a legitimate response to mass use of WMDs when in reality it’s nothing but a cheap stunt to save him from humiliation.
Conservative hawks are exasperated, and the implications for American security are enormous. Maybe, the president should start his remarks by saying, “You can forget just about everything I’ve said up until now . . . ” But then again no one really believes much of anything he has to say these days.