I think we all know what Barack Obama’s foreign-policy strategy coming into office was.
Step 1: Be Barack Obama (and not George W. Bush).
Step 3: World peace!
(With apologies to South Park.)
It all seems very strange now in retrospect, but in his defense, you can understand how seductive this notion must have been. The whole world — at least the parts of it that Obama listens to — was telling him that replacing George W. Bush with Barack Obama was just the ticket for what ailed the planet. The fervor was all so detached from facts on the ground that the Nobel Committee even gave Obama a Peace Prize for the stuff they were sure he was going to do, eventually. (One clue that Obama’s cult of personality didn’t actually translate into tangible results on the world stage should have been his failure to win the 2016 Olympics for his hometown of Chicago, despite being the first president to personally lobby for it.)
The problem, of course, is that Obama never had a Plan B. He never really thought he’d need one, and besides, he never much cared about foreign policy. Particularly in his first term, his top priority was to keep international problems from distracting from his domestic agenda. He ordered the surge in Afghanistan but then went silent about that war for years. He passive-aggressively let a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq evaporate. Even his controversial policies — targeted killing, drones, etc. — were intended to turn the war on terrorism into a no-drama technocratic affair out of the headlines.
And the killing of Osama bin Laden, his greatest foreign-policy accomplishment (I’m using “his” advisedly), was almost immediately translated into an argument about domestic priorities.
“We obviously think that if there is a takeaway from it,” White House press secretary Jay Carney explained in the immediate aftermath of bin Laden’s assassination, “it is the resolve [Obama] has, the focus he brings to bear on long-term objectives, that he keeps pushing to get it done. On immigration reform he keeps pushing . . . ” Blah, blah, blah. For a verbal pirouette, Carney’s segue had all the subtlety of Chris Farley in a tutu.
The real takeaway from such statements, and from Obama’s whole approach to foreign policy, is that he doesn’t care about it, or he’s afraid of it. He issued a red line in Syria until his bluff was called. He’s let our ally, the Philippines, fend for itself as China tries to annex Scarborough Shoal. He’s made it clear to the Iranians that he considers talking its own reward, since that will likely kick the hard decision about their nuclear program onto the next president’s desk. When Vladimir Putin began his invasion and annexation of Crimea, Obama mumbled a soft denunciation and then hustled downtown to a DNC rally, telling the crowd, “Well, it’s Friday, it’s after 5:00. So this is officially happy hour with the Democratic party.”
Such things are noticed. This is the foreign-policy equivalent of being an ugly American. President Obama is in Japan to assure the increasingly nervous Japanese that we will honor our commitments to them, even as the Chinese become ever-more brazen about filling the vacuum America is leaving behind. This is worthwhile. So is his tardy decision to reassure our increasingly nervous NATO allies in Poland and three Baltic states by sending some token troops for an exercise.
But while these are good and necessary gestures, they are necessary in no small part because it is only now dawning on the president that he should have had a Plan B all along.