President Obama and his advisers in the first term made every effort to be the un-Bush foreign policy. If President George W. Bush promoted democracy, they’d be indifferent to the domestic situation in other countries. If Bush surged in Iraq to eradicate al-Qaeda, Obama would pull out all the troops. If Bush was close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama would be antagonistic. The president liked to think of himself as worldly and sophisticated; in his mind Bush was a cowboy, an amateur.
It is remarkable when you think about it that he should have taken a campaign positioning and crafted a foreign policy attitude (calling it a “policy” is too generous) around it. But then his suspicion of U.S. power and conviction that the United States makes things worse coincided with his un-Bush campaign shtick. Obama fully embodied the left-leaning academic take on foreign policy. While they played footsie with the realist camp in foreign policy (bonding over antipathy toward Israel, disinclination to use U.S. hard power) the Obama team picked the precisely wrong time to peddle its brand of foreign policy. Their plans blew up in the face of reality.
The Obama administration’s bedrock belief is that this president is so special, so compelling an orator and a personality, that other countries will forego their own interests—an affront to the thinking of any realist. Thus, the condescension to Angela Merkel during the financial crises that Germany should support stimulus measures. Thus, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warning Europeans not to cut their defense spending further because we are cutting ours. The Obama administration’s foreign policy is best characterized as narcissistic, not realist.
Of course a realist would understand the true nature of the Iranian regime. A realist would not be shocked in the least that Russia’s Vladimir Putin invaded a neighbor and lies about his conduct there.
Another variation on the conservative critique from the right (and to an increasing degree from the left) is that Obama is so ideologically driven that he cannot see the world as it is. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, surely the most damning in his presidency, Obama refused to believe other nations don’t respect him. He thinks the never-ready-to-make-a-deal president of the Palestinian authority is a man of peace. He speaks as if Israel never offered the Palestinians their own state. He pretends there were never options for him to use in Syria.
If his foreign policy failed on contact with the real world, he’s not about to admit it. Former national security adviser Elliott Abrams remarks, “The only part of old-fashioned realpolitik that he does follow religiously is indifference to humanitarian matters.” Otherwise, as Abrams notes, he operates as an “ideologue,” in a world of his own making. (“To permit or foster a growing perception of American weakness and inability to act, to diminish our military capability, to treat allies as annoyances: How strange to call that realism in the face of a dangerous and fluid international situation.”)
Obama’s refusal to recognize his own failures and to put world events in context is unnerving, to say the least. But it also is an opportunity, more like a necessity, for a bipartisan, mature foreign policy that sees the world as it is, understands the need for U.S. power, comprehends that fidelity to our values is part of what gives us influence, embraces the need for a well-funded military and discerns the intentions of our adversaries. It does not go looking for conflict but neither is its central tenet (as it is for Obama) to avoid confrontation with rogue regimes at all costs.
Given how badly Obama has unsettled Democrats and Republicans alike there should be space for figures like Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) who have challenged the president in the last few days — if not by name then in substance on Iran, Russia and the Middle East generally — along with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) who devised the Magnitsky Act to join with equally unsettled Republicans ranging from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in devising a responsible course for the Congress to pursue. This can’t devolve into a partisan spat; rather it should be time to move beyond the Obama-Hillary Clinton-John Kerry era to one that truly is grounded in reality.
They can start with a bipartisan package of sanctions against Russia, an aid package to Ukraine, a responsible Defense Department budget and joint agreement on restoring sanctions if a final deal disabling Iran’s ability to become a threshold nuclear state is not reached in six months. In fact, a sort of shadow cabinet comprised of Democrats and Republicans would be entirely appropriate. The White House cannot be allowed to subvert or divert Congress from its proper role in foreign policy, and Democratic leaders who would defend a president this confused and weak risk the country’s security and their own viability.