There are a lot of ways American presidents can exert influence around the world. They can, as Ronald Reagan did, build the most dominate military force on the planet, pushing opponents to the verge of bankruptcy and intimidating rogue regimes. They can be indefatigable on human rights, both to rally democratic forces and to put a crimp in the plans of despots. They can make and nurture lasting alliances with the purpose of deterring aggression and showing that it is far better to be a friend than a foe of the United States. They can hire the best and the brightest foreign policy minds to make and execute policy. If a president does all of those things, generally he will be successful; if he does a few of the most important, the country can get along fine. But, if like President Obama, he does none of those things, he probably will witness an unraveling of U.S. influence, an increase in aggression by foes and a go-it-alone mind-set for allies.
Former United Nations spokesman and conservative foreign policy critic of the president Richard Grenell sums it up:
Obama has purposefully missed every world crisis of late from issues directly impacting America’s security (Iran and Egypt) or confronting America’s morality (Syria) or challenging capitalism (Ukraine and Venezuela). Hillary Clinton’s reset on Russian-U.S. relations and President Obama’s cancelling of the East European missile defense shield, as originally envisioned, encouraged the Russians to fill the void in Ukraine. Obama’s political argument that Americans don’t want another war or a confrontation is a non sequitur. If you don’t want war then you better be the advocate for diplomacy with muscle.
I’ll give the president the benefit of the doubt that he is not trying to diminish U.S. power, but at some point you have to wonder, at the very least, whether he is willfully ignoring the failure-strewn record he is amassing. Perhaps the most generous explanation is that he is trying to rally his base and preserve his Democratic majority in the Senate. But to what end? If his policy creates more international havoc and diminishes his standing further, Sen. Harry Reid’s continuing rule as majority leader will provide little comfort.
The president hasn’t really absorbed the lesson that refusing to act or avoiding conflict or pretending our interest isn’t at stake is detrimental to U.S. power. And for all his talk of multilateralism and world citizenship, his notions (e.g. Syria’s war is none of our business, we can’t help democracy fighters for fear of discrediting them) bespeaks an indifference to and disinterest in the world and the fate of people around the globe. Being the author of a “you’re on your own” foreign policy is nothing to brag about, from a geopolitical or moral perspective.
Unless he can be persuaded to change course, Obama will leave for his successor an Iran with a nuclear capability, a Middle East arms race, a substantial al-Qaeda presence from North Africa to Afghanistan to Iraq, an emboldened Russia and a hollowed-out military. There will be a long list of missed opportunities — a successful Green Revolution, a quick end to Bashar al-Assad, strengthened democratic forces in the Middle East and our own hemisphere and a contained Russia with little hope for reestablishing its lost empire — all of which he conceivably could have helped bring about.
In addition to increased danger, instability and conflict, there are troublesome domestic ramifications for him and his party. Most clearly, he has slapped back on his party the label “weak on defense.” In the wake of the Bush administration, Democrats had the chance to prove themselves more competent stewards of national security; they did not. That hands back to Republicans (at least certain ones) a potent issue. Moreover, his own foreign policy mismanagement makes national security a bigger issue and problem in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, whose fingerprints are all over a good deal of the foreign policy wreckage.
For the Republican Party, the only silver lining is that the president has put the anti-internationalists on shaky ground; that may affect the 2016 GOP presidential nominee. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is many things, but dumb is not one of them; he’s jumped out ahead on the strong-on-defense platform.
Obama came to office promising to restore American credibility and to recover from a supposed lapse in our values (e.g. using extreme measures on terrorist masterminds). Strangely, the Republicans seeking to replace him may have a very similar message.