The great Obama levitation is ending; the inexplicable aspect of it is that it has endured so long. The president won in 2008 on a slick platform, but given the unpopularity of George W. Bush and the economic calamity that caused the incumbent to announce, with his customary grasp of the need for eloquence on momentous occasions, that “the sucker could go down” (in reference to the economy), Elmer Fudd could have won the election as the Democratic nominee. Obama’s triumph was not in defeating the blunderbuss candidacy of John McCain but in swiping Bill and Hillary Clinton’s party out from under them. They are nothing if not hardball professionals, and despite some serious gaffes, such as Senator Clinton’s claim to have been under sniper fire at the Sarajevo airport when she was in fact virtually festooned with curtsying schoolgirls tendering her flowers, all probabilities were that she would be nominated. Mrs. Clinton won more votes in the primaries, but Senator Obama carried the day with a subtle pitch effectively promising expiation of the guilt and shame of decent white America for slavery and segregation, and the added bonus of never having to listen to charlatans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton again, if they merely put him in the White House: a one-stop, quick fix to what Abraham Lincoln called “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil,” followed by what Lyndon Johnson called a century of “Nigra, nigra, nigra.” This won enough of the “super” (i.e., unelected and ex officio) delegates to put Obama across. It was genius and seemed to presage a slick professional administration. Instead we have had five years of The Gong Show.
Foreign policy seemed to start from the premise that those countries that were antagonistic to the United States were probably correct to be so, because, he implied in his famous speech in Cairo in 2009, the headship of the country had always been in the hands of white Christians, and now things had changed. It was an apparent extension of his successful play for the support of the Democratic party, a disparate organization a fifth of whose supporters are probably African Americans and that is generally quite susceptible to an idealistic, repentant, egalitarian appeal. None of the party’s factions are anti-American, even if they want to change America. Foreign-policy success depends on national interest, which depends on different criteria from domestic policy, as all but the most obtuse Obamaphiles will have learned. The Bush policy of encouraging democracy was loosened, improving relations with the Mubarak regime in Egypt and giving the Iranian theocracy a free pass on its phony election in 2009, resulting in an even more provoking policy by Iran, and after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, a supportive U.S. policy toward the elected Muslim Brotherhood and its even more authoritarian Salafi allies, to the point that when they were overthrown by General al-Sisi and his military colleagues, the Obama administration reversed field again and has alienated and suspended aid to the military in protest against its undemocratic treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood had been trying to impose an unconstitutional dictatorship. The Obama administration was thus on every side of the democratic/despotic argument within Egypt but never held the same position for long. The new Egyptian regime is making overtures to the Russians, and the Saudis have replaced the suspended American military assistance to Cairo. It is impossible to find any pattern to American policy here except a love of self-inflicted wounds, like that of a flagellant religious order.
The same pattern was followed in Syria. President Bashar Assad, the “reformer,” as he was described by then–secretary of state Clinton, fell into civil war and the Obama administration declined to do anything about it while sanctimoniously announcing that “Assad must go.” When he employed sarin gas to kill more than a thousand of his countrymen, he crossed an Obama “red line,” and a punitive military strike was planned, which would sting but not hurt him, because Assad was now considered preferable to his opponents. As the naval squadron that had been dispatched to chastise Assad hovered offshore, Obama abruptly abdicated the position the Constitution confers upon him as commander-in-chief and handed over to the Congress the authority to approve such a mission. Secretary of State Kerry, to assist in securing this completely superfluous approval, reassured the legislators that the missile strike would be “unbelievably small,” an accurate description of the discernible logic in the administration’s shimmying, fishtailing policymaking process. Of course, when the secretary’s assurances of self-imposed ineffectuality were revealed as insufficiently persuasive to the 535 commanders-in-chief in the Congress, Obama and Kerry, like drowning men leaping for a life vest, accepted Russian president Putin’s offer to take away (unverifiably) Assad’s (easily replaceable) poison-gas supply.