On Foreign Policy, Obama’s Crown Has Proved Too Heavy for Him

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, wrote the Bard, and so it is with Barack Obama. And yet, reading “The Obama Doctrine,” Jeffrey Goldberg’s landmark essay on the president’s foreign policy, you sense impatience, or perhaps exasperation, more than unease. Thinly veiled contempt for key U.S. allies, which he dubs “free riders,” suffuses his rhetoric; their failure to embrace policies that strike him as self-evidently prudent spurs irritation and condescension. In Obama’s mind, it seems, the crowns of other leaders weigh considerably less than his.

If only America’s stubborn allies removed their blinders, which he attributes to tribalism or spinelessness, they could, like him, see the world for what it is — and resolve their problems on their own. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia might subside if only Riyadh would learn to “share the neighborhood.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict if only he offered greater concessions. Russian adventurism and Chinese bullying might end if only their neighbors demonstrated greater resolve. The war in Libya might have achieved a more stable outcome if only the Europeans were more “invested in the follow-up.”

At the same time, President Obama voices chagrin that his critics, both foreign and domestic, fail to recognize that some crises are so intractable that U.S. intervention, alas, either would fail to turn the tide or would come at too high a cost. An attack on Syria, he laments, would maroon America in a quagmire. Ukraine, he contends, “is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”

A common thread runs through these arguments: The president resents the demands of global leadership. For him, America’s role as the global superpower generates not grave responsibilities but unacceptable burdens. Obama castigates the putative failures of his allies and partners because he seeks to reduce America’s own footprint in the world. For the American-led international order that has prevailed since the Second World War, he wishes to substitute a multipolar international order.

The trouble with this approach is that global politics operates by different rules. Nations conduct their affairs not in isolated pockets of activity but as part of a broader equilibrium. Weaker countries, by their nature, gravitate to superpowers to obtain not only military backing but also diplomatic cover on the international stage. The United States, by virtue of its unrivaled strength, can afford to alienate individual countries as circumstances require. For other nations, however, the margin of error is thinner. If rogue regimes conclude that the Leviathan has abandoned its allies, their aggression will increase, and a seemingly localized conflict may emit aftershocks that reverberate far beyond its borders.

The opposite of unipolarity is not necessarily multipolarity but chaos. Both, in any event, could amount to the same thing — a phenomenon the Middle East has already begun to witness. As the White House pursues détente with Iran at the expense of Sunni Arab states and continues to abjure a meaningful military commitment in Iraq and Syria, a revanchist Moscow has expanded military and diplomatic cooperation with Tehran and Damascus. A rising China, meanwhile, is pursuing lucrative business deals with Iran, which provides critical backing to the Assad regime, thanks in part to the robust sanctions relief offered by the July 2015 nuclear agreement.

The result of all this is a shifting balance of power that favors America’s enemies rather than its friends, and increases global disorder. Saudi Arabia must now indeed share the neighborhood — not only with its arch-rival Iran but with the two aspiring superpowers of Russia and China as well. Wide swaths of the Middle East and North Africa must now share the neighborhood with the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Europe must now share the neighborhood with millions of Arab refugees and the terrorists embedded among them. And the United States must share the neighborhood with a growing cohort of ISIS-inspired homegrown extremists who sense American weakness — and concomitantly grisly opportunities.

In the Goldberg interview, President Obama maintains that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated, paling in comparison with the hazards of handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs. He defends his passivity, toothless diplomacy, and tenuous rapprochements, which have served to embolden America’s enemies, by casting an Iraq-like imbroglio circa 2003–08 as the only alternative — a one-size-fits-all argument meant to deflect any and all calls for increased military engagement.

Never mind that the 2003 Iraq war entailed 150,000 U.S. boots on the ground, a commitment no one seeks in the region today. In Obama’s mind, even the vast range of intermediate steps proposed by critics — a no-fly zone and an accelerated air campaign in Syria, and modest troop increases in Iraq, among other possible options — constitute fatal overreach that would place the United States on a slippery slope toward endless war.

Yet the slope of inaction may prove slipperier. In perhaps the most disconcerting quote from the Goldberg interview, Obama cites as a moment of immense satisfaction his momentous decision not to enforce his declared red line on Syria in 2012. “I’m very proud of this moment,” he said. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far.” Nevertheless, he added, he “was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy.”

Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of intervention in Syria, but make no mistake: Obama’s decision sealed the fate of the Syrian people, who have suffered, as of this writing, more than 470,000 deaths and counting. It helped set the stage for the rise of the Islamic State, which poses a direct threat to the American homeland. And it eviscerated the White House’s credibility in the region, sending friends and adversaries alike the message that America lacks the resolve to persevere when the going gets tough. Such a moment should induce not pride but grief. It serves as a profound symbol of the rise and fall of America as the guardian of international order.

The weight of the president’s crown apparently proved too heavy. But the crown of his successor, weighed down by the sheer number of crises that have accumulated under Obama’s watch, will be heavier still — and far more difficult to cast off.

— Tzvi Kahn is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

 

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