Whatever foreign policy credibility President Obama had left has crumbled in the wake of the backlash over the release of five Taliban terrorists, the decision by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to form a unity government and the newly candid criticism over his disastrous non-policy in Syria.
The president’s approval ratings on foreign policy are at all-time lows according to CNN/ORC (40 percent) and The Post/ABC News (41 percent) polls. This is especially noteworthy since at least some of the polling samples followed his West Point speech and the prisoner swap, which the White House apparently thought would be heralded as a great move. The White House spin that there is nothing to learn about Benghazi, Libya, and that the select committee on Benghazi is a witch hunt has not worked. Now, according to The Post/ABC News poll, 58 percent of Americans think the administration engaged in a cover-up, while the select committee has a positive approval split off 51 to 42 percent.
In Syria, virtually nobody will defend the president’s paralysis. Even his former ambassador Robert Ford has come out to blast him:
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford revealed Tuesday that he resigned from his post because he could no longer defend the Obama administration’s policy in that country.
“I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy,” he said on CNN. “We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat.”
The administration’s only success, Ford suggested, is the removal of a majority of President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons, a deal Russia helped orchestrate after President Obama backed off his threat of a military strike last September.
But even with that success, Ford said Assad is still using chemical weapons.
He is no right-wing hawk. Ford is a career foreign service officer whom the president entrusted with his Syria policy. Even more problematic for Obama and his secretaries of state is Ford’s more general attack on the administration’s foreign policy: “As far back as 2012, Ford said he warned that terrorist groups would become more pronounced in Syria as they have in Afghanistan, Yemen, Mali and Somalia. ‘This is not rocket science. In a place where there is no government control, terrorist groups can infiltrate in and set up places where they can operate freely,’ he said. ‘And we warned this would happen in Syria, and it has.’ ” He could add Libya to that list.
The Post sums up: “To explain that, simply take a sampling of news around the world, which has ranged from terrible to not-so-bad recently. Russia annexed Crimea and is behaving more and more like the Soviet Union, Syria gassed its citizens in a civil war (after Obama pressured them not to), the United States has failed to coax Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution. Among the good news from Americans’ perspective, the global financial system did not collapse and the United States withdrew from wars that long-ago lost public support. (Hooray?!)” Then there is the Iran interim deal, which is widely seen as useless or even counterproductive; the Egyptian coup and phony election (and resulting widespread animus toward the United States); the violence in Venezuela and the complaints of Pacific allies that we never “pivoted” toward Asia.
This is not only a catastrophe for Obama and for the United States, but also for Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, she defended the Taliban trade despite public outcry from even Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers. Clinton must decide whether to stick by the president and get pulled down in the undertow or to separate herself to maintain her credibility in a run for the White House. If she does the former, the press and public will increasingly see her as running for the third Obama term and determined to stick close to his failed policies. If she does the latter, she risks the ire of the base and the wrath of the White House.
The dilemma reminds us of several unappealing Clinton traits. First, she is overly cautious, always waiting to calculate which way the wind is blowing. That leaves all sides dissatisfied and reinforces the view that she is an entirely political figure, not a model stateswoman. Second, we really don’t know what she thinks. Unlike previously secretaries of state who left a personal imprint on their work, we really have no idea what her own policy would look like. She has been a good soldier, but where is the evidence she knows where and how to lead? And finally, a great deal of the downward spiral for the Obama foreign policy concerns her own competence and judgment. She didn’t seem to have kept an eye on al-Qaeda in North Africa, nor does her handling of the U.S.-Israeli relationship indicated a deft touch and ability to instill trust in others. She championed the president’s Iran engagement and backed the interim agreement, both of which seem destined to be seen as foolish gambits.
Obama’s foreign policy slide into chaos, retreat and appeasement now present Clinton with the most important choice of her career: Does she choose to play to the left or to strike out on her own and take the furor from her base on issues on which she claims to have expertise and maturity? I suspect it is first, but for her, her party’s and the country’s sake (since she could be president) I certainly hope she strikes out on her own.