An administration that lacks a consistent foreign policy philosophy has nevertheless established a predictable foreign policy pattern. A popular revolt takes place in country X. President Obama is caught by surprise and says little. A few days later an administration spokesman weakly calls for “reform.” A few more days of mounting protests and violence follow. Then, after an internal debate that spills out into the media, the president decides he must do something. But hoping to keep expectations low, his actions are limited in scope. By this point, a strategic opportunity is missed and the protesters in country X feel betrayed.
This record of serial indecision has damaged American interests. The Obama administration initially stood aloof from the Iranian Green Revolution, even though democratic regime change may be the only realistic alternative to American confrontation with the Tehran regime over its nuclear ambitions. In Libya, Obama waited until Benghazi was in the shadow of genocide before an incremental response. Obama has deployed American credibility in Libya — eventually supporting regime change — while pursuing policies that seem designed to result in stalemate. In Syria, the administration calls for “meaningful reforms” while Damascus employs mass violence against mass protests. Apart from moral considerations, wouldn’t the coldest pragmatist see benefit in the overthrow of Iran’s main ally in the Middle East?
It is no longer credible to blame these failures on inexperience — an argument that years of experience tends to undermine. A novice can learn from his mistakes. Obama apparently doesn’t view these outcomes as mistaken. So what explains his positive preference for ambivalence?
First, there is the political context of Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Since George W. Bush embraced democracy promotion, Obama would devalue it. Since Bush called out enemies, Obama would cultivate them. But the return to nuance turned out to be remarkably superficial. Did Bush’s decisiveness really discredit the idea of decisiveness itself? Events in the Middle East have forced the Obama administration to gradually abandon its philosophy of Bush negation, but the vestiges of that view have slowed an effective response at every stage.
A second explanation concerns Obama’s leadership style. He still acts the part of a college professor who has unlimited time to sift and debate his options, as though extended deliberation were a virtue and indecision had no cost. But changes in the Middle East are demonstrating how difficult it is to conduct a seminar during a hurricane. Hesitance precludes options.
Third, the administration’s national security team does little to challenge Obama’s predisposition toward vacillation. Vice President Biden is, to put it kindly, a quirky foreign policy thinker with a history of getting large strategic issues wrong. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is focused on the war in Afghanistan, making him naturally resistant to American involvement elsewhere. Hillary Clinton has shown flashes of resolve, but the daily task of any secretary of state is to manage the status quo.
Finally, on foreign policy issues Obama seems to have drunk deeply at the well of academic liberalism. In the immediate aftermath of the Green Revolution in 2009, he said, “It’s not productive given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations to be seen as meddling, the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections.” Obama was arguing that American support would somehow stain or delegitimize Iranian democratic aspirations — even as protesters were appealing for our help. This sounds more like the buzz of the faculty lounge than the leadership of an American president charged with defending and advancing history’s noblest ideals.
Some mix of these factors has combined to render the Obama administration blind to the promise of our times. Ending tyranny in the traditional centers of Arab cultural influence — Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus — would be a transformation akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It would demonstrate the exhaustion of authoritarianism in the Arab world and open the possibility of more successful, hopeful societies in the region. This transformation involves considerable risks. But those risks are magnified by an administration that refuses to take risks — that is willing to speak or act only when it becomes obvious that silence and inertia will bring disaster.
Now the Arab revolt has led to a predictable counterreaction — the attempt by regimes such as Libya and Syria to prove the efficacy of brutality. Their success would undermine American interests for decades. Presidential administrations don’t get to choose their historical challenges. But they can firmly take a side.