The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Despite Obama, the world still craves U.S. leadership

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The president’s denunciation of his critics and certitude that he made the right call in releasing five hardened Taliban leaders for a soldier who purportedly left his post has even Democrats wondering if he has lost his grip.  As with the Iran negotiations, private briefings with members of Congress on the release of the Taliban terrorists only increase their worries. It is not simply the prisoner swap that has stirred bipartisan concern.

The New York Times breaks the news to its generally liberal readers:

Criticism of President Obama’s announcement that American forces would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016 has begun to come not just from his Republican adversaries, but also from another quarter: former military officers and civilian officials who worked for years to develop and defend his administration’s strategy in Afghanistan.
These critics’ worry is that the withdrawal schedule Mr. Obama has set is so rigid and compressed that it will curtail efforts to train and advise Afghan security forces. Facing the possibility of a stepped-up military challenge from the Taliban, those forces still suffer from serious deficiencies, they say.

Like virtually every other aspect of his foreign policy record, President Obama’s lack of credibility on the Taliban trade and Afghanistan more generally can’t be written off as political harping by political opponents. The sense that he is not only misguided but downright incompetent is shared by nearly 60 percent of voters.

According to the latest Fox News poll:

By a decisive 20 percentage-point margin, Americans think the country is weaker under the leadership of President Obama, whose White House is seen as less competent than the previous two administrations.  . . .
It’s no surprise that most Democrats think Obama is more competent than Bush (76 percent) and that most Republicans think he’s less competent (81 percent). So what about independents? They say Obama is less competent than Bush by 47-34 percent. Another 14 percent say there’s no difference.
Majorities of Democrats (53 percent), independents (69 percent) and Republicans (84 percent) agree that Obama’s administration is less competent than Clinton’s.
Thirty-nine percent rate Obama’s leadership skills positively (excellent or good), while 61 percent rate him as only fair or poor. That’s unchanged from views in November 2013, and down slightly from 45-55 percent a year ago (May 2013).
More than three times as many voters rate Obama’s leadership skills as poor (35 percent) as say excellent (11 percent).

There has, quite simply been an effective vote of no confidence in the president, although our constitutional system doesn’t allow his government to fall and a new one to be formed quite yet.

This is a tragedy for the country, which has big problem requiring competent presidential leadership. And it is a tragedy for the world.

The president’s only guiding principles appear to be avoiding confronting aggression and extricating ourselves from a war against jihadists who remain at war with us.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the liberation of Europe, it is easy to be nostalgic about a time when the United States was the savior of the Free World. But we make a mistake in assuming the world seven decades after the invasion of Normandy can get along without us — or that it wants to.

U.S. leadership — not military might, but political, moral and economic support and direction — is needed in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and our own hemisphere. It has never been more evident than under this president that the United States is the glue that holds together the civilized world, the break against aggression and international chaos and the example for political and economic freedom. Europe will not defend itself against Russia without the United States Likewise, Libya and Egypt will descend into chaos without assistance from the West. The toxic mix of terrorism, radical separatists and human and drug smugglers in Northern Africa demand U.S attention, both to isolate and pressure bad actors and to boost success stories (e.g. Tunisia, Morocco, Colombia, Central America). In Asia, our allies demand to know when the “pivot” will happen. In Africa there are countries heading on the road to reform where U.S. trade, economic cooperation and human rights advocacy can make a difference.  Yet with all this and more, the president’s main objective remains retrenchment.

This president is likely hopeless when it comes to exercise U.S. leadership, too determined to retreat and too incompetent to executive helpful measures. But, as a former U.S. diplomat put it to me this week in Morocco, at least we should avoid making things worse. Stop praising despotic regimes in Egypt and publicly kicking our allies. Quit characterizing every situation as a choice between war and doing nothing. Extend to places working peacefully toward democratization and civil society building our expertise, investment and diplomatic encouragement. When we identify a human rights atrocity on a massive scale and see use of WMD’s, it won’t do to make promises we have no will to keep.

And if we can manage to do at least that, then perhaps minimal positive steps could be next: Finding and supporting pro-freedom, secular leaders in Muslim countries; reaching free trade agreement and closer military ties with our democratic Asian allies and talking to the American people about the necessity of engagement in the world. And then, if we’re really daring, we might consider using our enormous energy resources to tip the scales away from toxic actors (Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela, Middle East despots) and give our allies economic protection so they too can resist pressure.

Unfortunately, the administration’s rank incompetence is only convincing the public that we can’t achieve anything anywhere on the planet. In fact, there is plenty we can do, but first we have to have a president and other national leaders willing to pursue our interests over the long haul. If you doubt that the United States is badly needed and still admired by countries struggling to modernize and democratize, try doing some traveling overseas. It will convince you that even after all of Obama’s missteps and out-and-out incompetence, the people who need help remain certain that the United States is the last, best hope for them and the planet.

*I am in Morocco this week. My airline and hotel expenses are being paid by the Moroccan Institute for International Relations. My views are solely my own.