Barack Obama had a foreign policy for about five years, and now he has none.
The first-term foreign policy’s assumptions went something like this. Obama was to assure the world that he was not George W. Bush. Whatever the latter was for, Obama was mostly against. Given that Bush had left office with polls similar to Harry Truman’s final numbers, this seemed to Obama a wise political approach.
Second, policy per se would be secondary to Obama’s personal narrative and iconic status. Obama, by virtue of his nontraditional name, his mixed-race ancestry, and his unmistakably leftist politics, would win over America’s critics to the point where most disagreements — themselves largely provoked by prior traditional and blinkered administrations — would dissipate. Rhetoric and symbolism would trump Obama’s complete absence of foreign-policy experience.
Many apparently shared Obama’s view that disagreements abroad were not so much over substantive issues as they were caused by race, class, or gender fissures, or were the fallout from the prior insensitivity of Europe and the United States — as evidenced by a Nobel Prize awarded to Obama on the basis of his stated good intentions.
Third, Obama had a clever recipe for concocting a new disengagement. He would mesh the increasing American weariness with intervention abroad and fears over a shaky economy with his own worldview about the dubious past role of the United States. The result might be that both libertarians and liberals, for differing reasons, would agree that we should stay out of problems abroad, that a struggling lower class and middle class would agree that money spent overseas was money that could be better spent at home, and that critiques of America’s past would seem not so much effusions of leftist ideology as practical reasons why the United States should disengage abroad.
Finally, to the degree that any problems still persisted, Obama could either contextualize them (given his legal training and community-organizing experience), or talk loudly and threaten. For example, by referencing past American sins, by an occasional ceremonial bow or apology, by a bit of psychoanalysis about “macho shtick” or the schoolboy Putin cutting up in the back of the room, an exalted Obama would show the world that he understood anti-social behavior and could ameliorate it as a counselor does with his emotional client. The world in turn would appreciate his patience and understanding with lesser folk, and react accordingly. Again, in place of policy would be the towering personality of Barack Obama. And if all that did not work, a peeved Obama could issue deadlines, red lines, and step-over lines to aggressors — and reissue them when they were ignored.
Note what was not so integral to the Obama foreign policy. There was little sense of history and geography that might explain why crises transcend personalities. There was scant awareness that sometimes states act selfishly and immaturely. And just as individuals do, nations can interpret magnanimity as weakness to be exploited rather than as beneficence to be appreciated.
There was little appreciation of the postwar system created by the United States over the last 70 years, which had created vast global wealth and security, primarily because of the unique role of the United States in suppressing local and regional challenges to the international order. Obama had little apparent awareness that the U.S. picked friends and enemies not on the shallow basis that the former were wholly good and the latter abjectly evil, but rather on the basis that in an imperfect world some nations shared some of our ideas about politics, the market, and the need for an international system, and others did not, to the point of using violence.
And so we got “reset” with Russia, following on the idea that Bush had unduly alienated Putin, that Putin would appreciate that Obama marked a new frontier in the American presidency, and that Russia could see Obama was empathizing with Putin’s post–Cold War dilemmas. Who cared that reset, in fact, was negating a reasonable response to Putin’s aggression in Georgia, or that Russian territorial aims historically transcended ideology, or that Russia had not always played a positive role in the postwar order?
In the Middle East, Obama felt that reach-outs and Cairo-style oratory would assure the Islamic world that he would never intervene in its affairs. Obama supposedly understood historic Middle East grievances, and his own personal story was proof of that insight. Again, Obama did not so much reject prior American policy as not really understand it in the first place: appreciation of Israel’s unique democracy and pro-American sentiment, assurance that Iran must not go nuclear, advocacy for gradual liberalization to avoid the false choices between dictatorship and Islamism, resistance to new Chinese and old Russian expansionism in the Middle East, and protection of the sometimes odious but nonetheless stable Persian Gulf sheikhdoms that so much of the world depended upon to export oil.
The Middle East is now in chaos after the Cairo-like speeches, the pressures on Israel, the red lines in Syria, the on-again, off-again sanctions on Iran, the lead-from-behind bombing of Libya and subsequent Benghazi chaos, the flipping and flopping over Egypt, and the alienation of the monarchical Persian Gulf allies. The one constant is not so much doubt about American intent as it is agreement that the U.S. does not know what it is doing, and that there is not much reason to care even if it did know what it was doing.
Obama seemed likewise ignorant of our postwar position in the Pacific, namely that successful nations like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and perhaps the Philippines depended on ironclad guarantees of security so that they did not need to go nuclear in order to protect themselves again historical Chinese and Russian expansionism, or North Korean nuclear lunacy.
Obama failed to grasp that our Pacific allies were very much interested in continuity with past American policy and little interested if at all in Obama’s iconic status, his rhetorical sermonizing, or his half-baked tutorials about past American lapses. They did not wish to hear that Obama understood China’s dilemma about translating economic power into military influence or squaring the circle of capitalism and Communist autocracy. They only wanted to be reassured that China would not disrupt the landscape of the last 60 years, in which they had reached a level of freedom and affluence unrivaled in their histories.
In a word, Barack Obama did not understand that the world’s challenges preceded George W. Bush and would outlive Barack Obama, much less that he was a steward charged with preserving the U.S.-inspired postwar stability. He failed to see that much of the anger with Bush had been over Iraq between 2004 and 2008. To the degree the U.S. was unpopular, this resulted largely from entrenched critics abroad amplifying American domestic opposition to the Iraq War and to the so-called war on terror. Yet by 2009, the Iraq War was largely over and won, and the war on terror had largely established protocols to prevent another 9/11-scale attack. In most other regards, Bush had simply carried on a bipartisan foreign policy not much different from that of Bill Clinton, Bush’s father, or Ronald Reagan.
Obama did not grasp that being against Bush meant for the most part opposing that bipartisan foreign policy of the previous 30 years — with regard to Venezuela and Cuba, to the Middle East, and to Russia, China, and India. Such knee-jerk opposition inevitably caused embarrassment when Obama was forced to quietly accept or even expand Bush’s war on terror, and to assure Asia and Europe that things were still as they had been before he took office. Sometime in late 2013 Barack Obama seemed to sense that his foreign policy had failed, and that in almost every area of the globe things were more dangerous than when he entered office — and scarier because of his own initiatives.
And what now? Blaming Bush had a shelf life of four years, proved nihilistic, and can’t be continued for the next three. No one abroad cares that Obama is either leftwing or the first African-American president or that he speaks well from a teleprompter. Hope and change have become a sort of embarrassment. Another Cairo speech would earn guffaws. More loud reaching out to Turkey, Cuba, and Venezuela would earn eye-rolling. China has heard it all before. Iran is calibrating how to time its nuclear acquisition with the ending of Obama’s second term. Israel is politely tuning out. Putin is wondering: Can all these gifts be for real, or might there still be some elaborate ruse?
But mostly, our enemies now are ready to test us, and our friends will soon consider distancing themselves from us. So much so that even Obama’s occasional wise initiatives, like a trade deal with Japan, will go nowhere, given that there is no upside in supporting America, and no downside in opposing it.
We had a bad foreign policy and now we have no foreign policy — and sadly, we can only hope that is an improvement.