The president’s foreign policy collapse has unsettled a flock of liberal pundits. Joe Klein, for example, writes, “He willingly jumped into a bear trap of his own creation. In the process, he has damaged his presidency and weakened the nation’s standing in the world. It has been one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I’ve ever witnessed. The failure cuts straight to the heart of a perpetual criticism of the Obama White House: that the President thinks he can do foreign policy all by his lonesome. This has been the most closely held American foreign-policy-making process since Nixon and Kissinger, only there’s no Kissinger.” And no Nixon.
Likewise, Jeffrey Goldberg, long-time defender of Obama’s Middle East dealings, now argues: “All Assad has to do to forever stave off a punitive strike is to keep promising that he’s in the middle of giving up his chemical weapons. (No one, by the way, has addressed the fate of his biological weapons.) This is a process that could go on for months, or even years.” He warns that “if Putin and Kerry have indeed constructed, intentionally or not, an offramp for Obama, Assad can continue — with real impunity now — to slaughter civilians without foreign interference. He may be Hitler, as administration officials and their surrogates keep suggesting, but a Hitler we’re content to see remain in power. The opposition in Syria will see all of this as a betrayal, and could become further radicalized as a result.”
The disdain for Obama’s Syria stumbling extends to foreign policy professional from the center-left, including those who once worked for him. Ex-State Department official Rosa Brooks attacks her former boss: “Like millions of other Americans, I listened to President Obama’s speech last night with a sense of growing dismay. We wanted decisiveness; we got delay. We wanted clarity; we got contradictions. We wanted strategy; we got simplistic moralism. We wanted principle; we got peevish pedantry. We wanted honesty; we got hypocrisy.”
Leslie Gelb, the embodiment of Georgetown conventional wisdom, likewise declares: “Well, President Obama ‘mixed in’ in Syria two years ago without the semblance of a coherent strategy. It’s a sorry record. Mr. Obama’s reputation and clout have suffered.” He writes, “The main lesson to be learned from the last two years is that whatever happens with these resolutions, the Obama White House must now have a coherent strategy for Syria. At this moment, no strategy can solve the Syria problem. Indeed, promoting yet another new one would be a mistake. The only viable strategy at this point is to help prevent things from getting worse.”
By far the most entertaining, however, is David Rothkopf. He muses:
Every so often, a blind squirrel finds a nut. This is unquestionably good news for the squirrel, provided that what he has found is actually a nut and not some other less savory thing lying around on the forest floor. But the same blindness that afflicted the squirrel before his fortunate discovery will almost certainly make it impossible for him to see the potential consequences of his seeming good fortune. Which, if the squirrel is the president of the United States and the nut is the hint of an opportunity to find a diplomatic fix for the problem of chemical weapons in Syria, may not be a good thing for U.S. interests in the Middle East or around the world.
Even the most charitable of interpretations by the president’s most loyal supporters (and I voted for him twice, so I count myself in that group) would have to rank the past couple of months as among the worst of his administration in terms of national security policy mismanagement. From the muddle of our Egypt policies to the ham-fisted and tone-deaf response to the NSA scandal and its international aftershocks; from the first contradictions around the president’s improvised and then seemingly regretted “red line in Syria” to Tuesday night’s “big speech,” which was flat, familiar, and contradictory, and ended in a punt to an indefinite future, the otherwise often self-assured White House’s recent handling of our international policies has been, well, a bit squirrely.
Conservatives finally have company in their contempt for the current president’s national security debacles, but this is more than Schadenfreude. There are the seeds of some sort of bipartisan agreement on at least what we should not do in the Middle East and elsewhere. We should not waffle, let problems fester or imagine we can let others take up our slack. We should not imagine the threat of violent jihadism is behind us, or that knocking off a few terrorist leaders is a substitute for a coherent foreign policy.
There is a growing understanding that we need to return to some more sober, deliberate policy in the Middle East which defends our interests consistently, providing foes and friends with a clear view of what American will and will not tolerate. The “freedom agenda” doesn’t have to be an obscenity, as it was for the left under President George W. Bush; we can now all recognize that it is in our interests to support non-jihadi nations and groups who will provide a more stable environment and a decent life for their people. We can reach consensus that failed states invite terrorism and instability that will not be contained within national borders.
That does not mean we utilize military action primarily or frequently, but instead requires a very long-term commitment to nurturing tolerant, free societies and robustly opposing tyrannical ones. This is not an endeavor that will take months or merely a couple of years.
We can all agree that we must go outside terribly flawed and counterproductive international bodies to act (economically, militarily, or diplomatically) alone if need be or with other countries with similar interests (this does not include Russia). Legitimacy comes not from Turtle Bay, but from our own Constitution and our defense of freedom and determination to abate violence and repression. We can reach consensus that it is bad for America and the world if Russia is top dog in the Middle East. We can insist on electing a president prepared to lead.
There will be plenty to disagree about on the details and execution of post-Obama foreign policy. But in seeing the worst and most clumsy foreign policy apparatus in American history, maybe we can find a smarter, bipartisan policy that can repair American stature and undo the damage of the last 4 1/2 years.