“My job as commander in chief,” an exasperated President Obama told critics this week, “is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely. And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests …
“Many,” he went on, “who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again. Why? I don’t know.”
Thus our president, whom ex-administration officials say privately is all-too-cloistered among White House acolytes, dismisses his foreign policy critics as robotic force-first neoconservatives, and he makes clear that he views Iraq as the all-consuming cautionary tale of contemporary U.S. foreign policy.
But, in absorbing a lesson from one troubled engagement, the president ignores a host of other lessons from foreign policy challenges that date back decades — about sending clear messages, fulfilling commitments, confronting aggression, understanding adversaries, and viewing the world as it is.
Thus, notwithstanding Obama’s belief, his critics span both parties and include not just neoconservatives but also liberal internationalists and realists; their complaints extend far beyond Obama’s reluctance to use force; and their concerns run from the Middle East and North Africa, to Russia and the Baltics, and to China and the Pacific.
Space does not permit a comprehensive critique of Obama’s foreign policy, but here are some top-line thoughts.
For one thing, Obama lacks credibility on the world stage. Our allies in Jerusalem, Riyadh and elsewhere don’t trust him, while our adversaries in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere don’t fear him.
Obama promises to promote human rights in the Greater Middle East but looks away as Turkey’s Recep Erdogan silences his critics and gradually transforms his nation from a democracy to an autocracy. He says the world must act to stop genocide but professes powerlessness as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad slaughters his people.
Obama warns other global leaders against this move or that, and he threatens them with serious consequences, paralyzing sanctions, or even military action but, at crunch time, he backs away or acts meekly.
Obama said nearly three years ago that it was time for Assad to go but, other than naively pinning his hopes on an international conference that would somehow coax Assad to depart, he did little to make it happen. The Syrian strongman remains ever-more firmly ensconced and, in fact, announced plans this week to seek another term (which, as an autocrat, he will surely “win”).
Obama drew a red line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons but, after the dictator crossed it, reversed himself at the last minute and let Assad escape the military strike that he and his team had promised. He deems the Russian-engineered deal for Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons a success, even though the deal doesn’t cover all chemical weapons and evidence mounts that the dictator has since used such weapons again.
The message — of promises not kept — is received clearly in Tehran, which continues to maintain its right to pursue its nuclear program; in Jerusalem, which fears an Iranian nuclear weapon and says it will do whatever is necessary to prevent it; and in Moscow, where Vladimir Putin dreams of a restored Soviet empire, has annexed Crimea, and is orchestrating chaos in Ukraine to serve as a pretext of invasion.
For another thing, Obama seems not to recognize that our adversaries do not share his world-view.
He speaks of peace and prosperity, shared interests and international law, collaboration and engagement, as if that will appeal to the tough-minded autocrats who crave power more than anything else.
“Russia has never been more isolated,” Obama says proudly, referring to U.S.-led actions in response to Moscow’s mischief in Ukraine. “And Russia is having to engage in activities that have been
rejected uniformly around the world. And we’ve been able to mobilize the international community to not only put diplomatic pressure on Russia, but also we’ve been able to organize European countries who many were skeptical would do anything to work with us in applying sanctions to Russia.”
But, Putin will happily accept U.S. disdain to reap expansionist success. He will, as well, scoff at diplomatic pressure as long as Obama refuses to impose the kinds of sanctions that would truly bite him or threaten his hold on power.
For still another, Obama sees the world as he wishes it to be, not as it is.
He fell for the old and plainly ridiculous canard that Israeli-Palestinian peace is the gateway to more positive regional developments and, in encouraging Israel to make peace, he portrayed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in brave, almost heroic, terms that simply don’t comport with reality.
While Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry spent valuable time on an initiative that offered little hope of success, they let far more consequential regional challenges — such as Iran’s hegemonic rise, Syria’s bloodshed and Turkey’s autocratic turn — grow worse on their collective watch.
To be sure, Iraq is a cautionary tale about the limits of U.S. military power. But, in applying its lesson to challenges so far and wide, Obama is leaving the United States decidedly weaker on the world stage.
Lawrence J. Haas is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.