The worst of what we assumed about the way US President Barack Obama views America’s role in the world and the various crises the US has faced since he took office has been confirmed by the man himself.
By now you probably have read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic, “The Obama Doctrine,” which distills numerous conversations between Goldberg and Obama, as well as other senior administration officials, like Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Obama and his administration have been particularly open with Goldberg over the years. For this article, Obama let it all hang out. Goldberg knows when Obama curses and expresses rage at people whom, despite not being president of the United States, have much longer careers in public service than Obama does.
On the record with Goldberg, Obama insults allies without a thought (or perhaps with too much calculation).
But the worst of it is the way Obama has approached the world and America’s role in it. It has not merely been on the basis of classic “retrenchment” or reorientation toward the Far East as both Obama and Goldberg suggest. It has been on the basis of an ideological persuasion as to what American interests are. And contrary to the president’s motto, “Don’t do stupid shit,” the president has in fact done some pretty stupid things.
In Syria, the president announced a red line, apparently without much thought as to whether it would be enforced. When the red line was crossed and the US, under his leadership, began preparing punitive strikes, Obama felt like he was being steamrolled by the Washington establishment and their “playbook.” So at the last minute he went to Congress, then he changed his mind altogether, then he went to Russian President Vladmir Putin to suggest removing Syria’s chemical weapons as an alternative.
Though the removal of chemical weapons is a laudable achievement, the lack of planning, the hesitation and the failure to follow through with a very public threat – this must have sent quivers through the spines of America’s allies and encouraged at least some boldness in America’s foes.
On the Ukraine crisis, where the borders of a European country have changed and may still be changing due to the aggression of a major power, Obama shrugs it off as not involving a NATO ally and, along with the Syria crisis, not being “at the core of U.S. interests.”
Ukraine, he says, “is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” Apparently, this aggression will indeed stand.
The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), Obama says, “is not an existential threat to the United States.”
Existential is perhaps a term he picked up from all his dealings with Israel which does face threats to its existence and over which Netanyahu’s government and the Obama administration have clashed. But not being an existential threat is also a step up from “J.V. team,” as Obama once referred to it. Perhaps the change in status is due to the fact that this al-Qaida offshoot has created a de-facto state and has perpetrated and inspired attacks around the world, including in France and the United States.
Glossed over in the article are some of Obama’s major Middle East initiatives and decisions: his “apology tour,” the complete withdrawal from Iraq, his campaigns to force a two-state solution on Israel, his attempts to connect with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nuclear accord with Iran.
Clearly the president believed that the Middle East warranted American attention. And it was there that he tried two different strategies: the first was a different type of reorientation – away from traditional allies and toward traditional opponents. A realignment. This was done by abandoning former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and attempting to bolster the Muslim Brotherhood, the attempts to forge an alliance with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he erroneously thought to be a model Islamic leader, the vicious campaign against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the full court press to establish what will obviously be a Palestinian terrorist state, and his own charm offensive toward Iran.
The removal of chemical weapons from Syria appears to also have carried a price – a tacit commitment by the United States not to take direct action against the Assad regime, another sight tilt toward the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis.
The second was to make clear that beyond expanding the drone strikes of the Bush administration, the use of force by America was mostly not “on the table.”
In Syria, it was the reluctance to conduct strikes against Assad. With Iraq it was the decision to not leave behind even the minimum level of forces that the military recommended, which could have denied ISIS access to Iraq and stunted its growth.
With Iran it was the public clashing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the attacks on those who suggested strikes as advocating an Iraq-style invasion, the war games’ results showing the costs of open war with Iran. Perhaps here was an example of how the failure to enforce the red line put the lie to Vice President Joseph Biden’s claim that “the president doesn’t bluff.” On the other hand, the administration expressly refused to set red lines on Iran’s nuclear program, which itself undercut the all-options-are-on-the-table bluff.
The credibility of hard power was replaced with the sincerity of speech power and Palestinian centrism which Obama naively believed could overcome the religious fundamentalism and anti-Westernism of the region.
In his essay “The World America Made,” Robert Kagan has attributed the current world order, defined by “the great spread of democracy, the prosperity, the prolonged great power peace” as being “depend[ent] directly and indirectly on power and influence exercised by the United States.”
Kagan argued that “when American power declines, the institutions and norms American power supports will decline too.”
The results of President Obama’s policies seem to confirm this.
Borders have been mutilated and erased through aggression. Civilians are being slaughtered en masse.
The character of Europe may be changed forever. A terrorist organization has become an Islamic state and has perpetrated attacks throughout the world. Even as it has dismantled parts of its nuclear program, Iran’s actions in Syria, support for Hezbollah, and its recent ballistic missile tests demonstrate that Iran continues its march of evil.
Today, the world is much different, and more dangerous, than it was when President Obama took office.
It is a world awash with fires of the type that in the past led to global infernos that engulfed even the United States, despite its reluctance and distance, sometimes at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives.
Putting out those fires long before they threaten to metastasize and generally maintaining the American- led world order is indeed “at the core of US interests.”The writer is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee member.