A bright line of narcissism and naivete runs through the Obama administration’s foreign policy, from Crimea to the Middle East. The inability to grasp that other nations have a different hierarchy of values and view their national interests in ways irreconcilable with those of the US has repeatedly caused America to be surprised by events and left with “no good choices.”
Secretary of State John Kerry’s shocked response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea captures both qualities: “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in the 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.”
To which Russian President Vladimir Putin effectively replied, “Oh yeah, who’s going to stop me?” Leon Wieseltier of the liberal New Republic observed, “There can be no doubt that President [Barack] Obama was caught off-guard by Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and his surprise was typical. The president is too often caught off-guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil.”
According to the regnant theory in Washington, the world is simply too “interdependent” for such behavior: Nations will not risk their international standing and trade for the beneﬁts of empire. It simply did not occur to American policymakers that Putin might value other things above the state of the Russian stock market.
Not that Putin needed to worry much on that score.
On the day the US announced its ﬁrst sanctions, the Moscow stock market rose 3.7 percent in relief.
Nor did it occur to the American policymakers that interdependence cuts two ways. Europe cannot even match the feeble sanctions imposed by the US: Bankers in the City of London, real-estate agents in better neighborhoods across the continent and those running posh boarding schools have grown too fond of the Russian oligarchs, with billions to spend freely.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tweeted a succinct description of “interdependence” from the European standpoint: “On the one hand, we cannot imagine delivering arms to Russia [a $1.7 billion submarine ordered by Russia]. On the other hand, there is the reality of employment.”
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S assumptions about the international arena derive not from any study of other nations and cultures, but from looking in the mirror and projecting himself on every other country. That narcissistic habit of mind has led to one foreign policy mishap after another.
Obama came into ofﬁce conﬁdent that he could “reset” relations not just with Russia, but with the entire world, because “I look different than other presidents.” With sufﬁcient apologies for past American behavior, a few obsequious bows, deference to international institutions, and disavowal of American power, all would be well.
Things have not quite worked out as he imagined.
America’s long-standing allies no longer trust her, and enemies do not fear her. Even in European capitals, Obama commands less respect than his “cowboy” predecessor.
Last week, Kerry pleaded in vain with Arab League heads of state not to issue any statements on Israel as a Jewish state, and thereby strip the “peace process’’ of its last ﬁg leaf. They announced instead their “total rejection of the call to consider Israel a Jewish state.”
To “reset” relations with Russia, Obama reneged on American promises of anti-missile defenses to Poland and the Czech Republic, while asking for and receiving nothing in return. The president convinced himself that Putin is a partner for solving the Iranian nuclear conundrum, and he gratefully accepted Putin’s face-saving offer of help when Syrian President Bashar Assad ignored Obama’s self-imposed “red line” and unleashed chemical weapons against civilians.
How has that partnership fared? Putin’s ﬁrst response to American sanctions over Crimea was to announce via his deputy foreign minister that Russia was reevaluating its stance towards the P5+1 world powers’ negotiations with Iran.
And he took advantage of Obama’s reluctance to bomb Assad to rescue his Syrian client, thereby returning Russia to a position as a regional player that it has not enjoyed since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat sent his Soviet advisers packing nearly 40 years ago. Russia, Putin proved, knows how to defend its clients.
Obama also came into ofﬁce with a plan to win favor with Iran by advancing Iranian interests rather than thwarting them. His hand extended in friendship to the mullahs, he remained on the sidelines during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, and consistently opposed sanctions legislation until it was forced on him, and has since then issued numerous waivers. Rather than seizing upon the rebellion against Assad in 2011, before extremist groups took over the opposition, as a means of striking a blow at Iran’s hegemonic desires and breaking up the Shi’ite Crescent from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria, Obama used America non-intervention in Syria as a bargaining chip to be offered to Iran.
Obama’s foreign policy, writes Walter Russell Mead, was predicated on the assumption that acceptable compromises could be achieved with longtime adversaries, and that he has the smarts to discern who could be trusted. He decided Putin was a partner; Assad a “reformer” (in Hillary Clinton’s words), who could be induced to become a citizen in good standing of the international community; and Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood moderating inﬂuences because of their willingness to participate in elections en route to dictatorship, and because their ranks include “doctors and lawyers” (as per CIA chief John Brennan). Lately, he has discerned moderate tendencies in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has absolutely no say over Iran’s nuclear program.
What Obama failed to consider in dealing with countries like Iran and Russia, writes Mead, “is that some countries around the world may count the reduction of American power and prestige among their vital interests.” Putin’s resentment of the “dissolution of the bipolarity [i.e.
the Soviet Union and the US] on the planet” in favor of arrogant Americans touting their own exceptionalism was on full display in his Crimea speech. And he has not missed an opportunity to humiliate Obama.
IN THE ’30s, Western leaders refused to read Mein Kampf or to take Hitler’s plans seriously. And similarly today, Obama clings stubbornly to the belief that religion doesn’t matter, traditional Russian aspirations to empire are relics of the past – in short, that enemies can’t really mean what they say, because all people and nations primarily seek just a little more material plenty.
That theory prevents him from asking why Iran’s leaders have denounced the US as the “Great Satan” since 1979; or wondering why, despite the fact that “everyone already knows the lines of the eventual settlement” of the Palestinian-Israel conﬂict, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cannot sign an end-of-conﬂict agreement with Israel without himself becoming a “sacriﬁce for peace”; or entertaining seriously the possibility that the Iranian mullahs view nuclear weapons as an important instrument for spreading the Islamic Revolution – and might actually use them.
THE “ACHIEVEMENTS” of Obama’s foreign policy have been primarily of the negative variety.
His trust in international institutions to maintain international order in place of American power was exposed by Russia’s Security Council veto of any UN response to its Crimea invasion.
An increasingly assertive China would do the same with respect to any Security Council resolutions relating to it.
Kerry’s obsessive efforts to secure a framework agreement have served only to make clear that the Palestinians will not make peace with Israel.
Abbas and his successors will from time to time agree to talk to gain prisoner releases and the like, but they will not negotiate peace.
With respect to his signature issue, nuclear non-proliferation, however, Obama has made things exponentially worse. By failing to stop Iran’s nuclear program, he will likely trigger a rush for nuclear weapons in the world’s most unstable region. If Iran reaches breakout capacity, Saudi Arabia will surely rush to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan, and Egypt and Turkey would probably follow suit.
The experience of Libya and Ukraine after voluntarily giving up their nuclear programs ensures that no other country will ever emulate their example.
In 2003, the “Great Loon” dismantled his nuclear program, which the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated was three to seven years from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Nine years later, the international community, with the US leading from behind, deposed Muammar Gaddaﬁ and left a vacuum in Libya quickly ﬁlled by terrorist groups and local militias.
In 1994, Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons it acquired in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in return for guarantees of its territorial integrity from the US, Britain and Russia. The worth of those guarantees is now painfully clear.
In short, treating the rest of the world as a gentlemen’s club of ﬁne fellows engaged in a bit of harmless bartering over a little bigger piece of the pie has proven to be a policy guide from what the Germans call das Wolkenkuckkucksheim, or cloud cuckoo land. ■
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.