President Trump’s attacks on the international liberal order — from free trade to defense of international sovereignty to democratic values — did not start with him. Ironically, while Trump’s America First attempts to repudiate the foreign policy views of the Obama presidency, operationally and even rhetorically Trump at times resembles the worst aspects of the Obama years.
Paul Miller makes a convincing case that President Barack Obama made a tragic error in pursuing a policy of retrenchment and reticence in defense of American values:
In his eagerness to avoid making [President George W.] Bush’s mistakes, he made a whole new set of mistakes. He over-interpreted the recent past, fabricating the myth about a hyper-interventionist establishment. As a result, he overreacted to the situation he inherited in 2009 and, crucially, never adjusted during his eight years in office. In this sense and others, he contrasts starkly with Bush, who made major changes in his second term. The result is that Obama retrenched when he should have engaged. He oversaw the collapse of order across the Middle East and the resurgence of great power rivalry in Europe while mismanaging two wars and reducing America’s military posture abroad to its smallest footprint since World War II. Despite the paeans of Obama’s admirers, this is not a foreign policy legacy future presidents will want to emulate.
Obama undercut his own determination to win the war in Afghanistan by imposing artificial deadlines and was forced to reverse his pullout from Iraq when, as critics predicted, Iraq descended into chaos. Miller points out:
Obama’s instinct for restraint and its damaging consequences for American security was evident beyond the Middle East and South Asia. Obama’s military pullback, for example, has gone further than his withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan: There are some 50,000 fewer U.S. troops stationed abroad than there were in September 2001 before Bush’s wars. The current global defense posture — about 200,000 troops mostly in Europe and East Asia — is the smallest since World War II. The decline in America’s hard power abroad deprives the United States of bargaining leverage against Russia’s aggression in Europe and China’s coercive diplomacy in the East and South China Seas.
Trump says he wants a military buildup, but his proposed increase is puny and there is no indication he wants to use it as leverage against great power rivals. Trump, like Obama, is ready to concede a prominent role for Russia in the Middle East and to allow genocide to unfold under the false notion that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad provides some sort of stability (!).
Moreover, contempt for democratic values and moral relativism did not start with Trump. Miller recalls:
In addition, Obama has done remarkably little to advance liberal ideals around the world and, in fact, presided over a global retreat of democracy. Like all presidents he praised democracy and human rights — notably in his speeches in Cairo in 2009 and during the Arab Spring in May 2011. But his deeds spoke louder. His administration did little to discourage coups against democratically elected governments in Mali in 2012, Egypt in 2013 or Thailand in 2014; or to address the slow erosion of democracy in Turkey and the Philippines; or to address the troubling rise of extremist political movements in Austria, Greece and Hungary. He did little to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia, preferring sanctions over weapons transfers or other forms of security assistance. When Iranians took to the streets in their Green Revolution in 2009 and when the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the United States largely stood by and watched events rather than shape them. U.S. foreign assistance — a crucial tool for shaping events, supporting democratic movements and investing in allies around the world — declined from $47.6 billion in 2011 to $36.6 billion in 2016. The decline was not wholly due to the drawdown in military assistance to Iraq and Afghanistan: Democracy assistance declined globally from $3.5 billion in 2010 to a low of $1.2 billion in 2016.
Perfectly epitomizing the moral equivalences and muddy thinking that now plagues us, Obama deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes recently made the outlandish claim that our efforts at democracy promotion are akin to and justify Russian meddling in our electoral system:
The U.S. officials who administer the system that Putin sees as such an existential danger to his own reject his rhetoric as “whataboutism,” a strategy of false moral equivalences. Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser under President Obama, is among those who reject Putin’s logic, but he said, “Putin is not entirely wrong,” adding that, in the past, “we engaged in regime change around the world. There is just enough rope for him to hang us.”
Moreover, in the original version of the article, since changed, Rhodes betrayed an even deeper level of ignorance about American policy: “The U.S. officials who administer the system that Putin sees as such an existential danger to his own reject his rhetoric as ‘whataboutism,’ a strategy of false moral equivalences. And yet ‘Putin is not entirely wrong,’ Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser under President Obama, said. ‘In the past, the U.S. funded political parties that ran against him. We engaged in regime change around the world. There is just enough rope for him to hang us.'” (Emphasis added.) We did not fund parties against running against him. Putin of course attacked legitimate nongoverment organizations that advanced human rights and civil liberties. Putin’s campaign of secret hacking, orchestrated leaks and manipulation of social media to benefit Trump bears no resemblance whatsoever to such work.
“I don’t know what’s more troubling, that someone who served in the White House for eight years doesn’t know what we do and don’t do in Russia, or that he believes Russian interference in our elections is somehow legitimate payback for what he regards as the evil American polices of the past, i.e, supporting democracy,” says Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Post contributing columnist who supported Hillary Clinton for president. “It does tell you a lot about the Obama White House’s view of the world, though.” And it sounds remarkably like Trump’s remark, “You think our country is so innocent.” Hey, Putin kills people; we kill people. Isn’t that Trump’s view of things?
So if you want to know where Trump and Stephen K. Bannon got their moral equivalence, their lack of fidelity to democratic values, their unwillingness to stand up to big power rivals and their insistence that American policy has been at the root of international calamities (Obama was the founder of the Islamic State, Trump once insisted), you don’t have to look very far.