As presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mitt Romney both had their shortcomings. They didn’t connect with Americans on an emotional level and failed to articulate an agenda that working- and middle-class voters believed could help them. But their sins were not unseriousness or flightiness on foreign policy; both identified our foes, counseled determination and advocated sufficient funding for our armed forces. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the man who beat them and now occupies the Oval Office. What’s worse, with each new crises his response to provocation gets weaker.
In putting forth Russian sanctions so slight that “pin prick” overstates their impact, President Obama merely cemented his image as a man who delivers empty threats but lacks the nerve or skill to exact a price for our foes’ aggression. Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton aptly assessed the president’s action as “so weak that it’s embarrassing.” Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin swiftly moved to annex Crimea.
The Wall Street editorial board pointed out that the seven sanctioned Russians did not include important names. “Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, Mr. Putin’s chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and Alexander Bortnikov, who runs the FSB (formerly the KGB), belong to the circle of hard-liners on the Russian national security council, where the decisions on Ukraine are taken. Mr. Shoygu’s department has deployed some 20,000 men to Crimea. Mr. Bortnikov’s charges are running special operations in eastern Ukraine to whip up separatist demonstrators.” Obama gives new meaning to the phrase “too little, too late.”
Obama repeats the same empty phrases whether the adversary is Iran, Syria or Russia. “Country X will find itself isolated.” “Country X’s actions show its weakness.” “Country X will come to rue the day it defied the international community.” It never dawns on him that Country X doesn’t consider itself isolated (or doesn’t care), thinks it has shown up the United States and doesn’t give a fig about the international community. For a man who billed himself as an internationally aware sophisticate, Obama knows precious little about how other countries operate and what motivates our enemies. He makes the most basic error of foreign policy novices: He imagines adversaries share our values and make the same assessments we do. Again and again they surprise him by showing they don’t.
Likewise, the president never ceases to complain, “There are no good options.” He demands to know, “Do you want boots on the ground?“ And he insists those calling for more robust action are warmongers or rubes. It has been his own delinquency, obviously, that now leaves us with no good options, gives us the Hobson’s choice of war or defeat and causes members of both parties to pull their hair out over our foreign policy blunders.
You can forgive Mitt Romney for a bit of “I told you so,” given he was mocked unmercifully for calling Russia our greatest strategic challenge. But he also gets to the root of the matter in this Wall Street Journal op-ed: “It is hard to name even a single country that has more respect and admiration for America today than when President Obama took office, and now Russia is in Ukraine. Part of their failure, I submit, is due to their failure to act when action was possible, and needed.” When the president and his advisers peevishly demand critics say what they would do, the answer must begin with an election of a different president, retention of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, resolve in Iraq and Afghanistan, support for the Green Revolution, etc. This disaster has been in the making for five years, the result of serial weakness. (As a practical pointer, however, one idea would be for Obama to stop talking to Putin; with each hour on the phone Putin becomes more convinced the president is spineless.)
In his determination to retrench and his self-serving delusion that a decade of war was ending, Obama refused to take measured steps until aggressors were emboldened, economic sanctions became useless and no one took him seriously. He was so intent on kicking the can down the road that he left the United States and its allies vulnerable to dangerous foes. His foreign policy of wishful thinking and willful neglect now has come back to bite him.
In this both Hillary Clinton and left- and right-wing anti-interventionists share the blame. In varying degrees, they endorsed Obama’s world view or turned the other way — when he withdrew entirely from Iraq, did a 180 on his red line in Syria, exacted no consequences for the deaths of four Americans in Libya, slashed the defense budget and foolishly lifted sanctions against Iran.
National security is fast becoming our most acute problem. Budgets can be fixed and Obamacare repealed and replaced, but the damage to our international standing and the proliferation of nuclear weapons Obama may allow will plague presidents for decades to come. The dead, displaced and maimed in Syria will remain a permanent legacy of this president.
If we would not elect someone who, for example cheered Obamacare, why would the country turn to leaders whose judgment on foreign policy was just as flawed? To invest responsibility to those such as Hillary Clinton — or Sen. Ran Paul (R-Ky.), for that matter — who suffer the same infirmities as Obama would be sheer folly. The American people have been badly served by one commander in chief; they need a much better one to clean up the mess he’ll leave behind.