Foreign-Policy Incoherence
President Obama defends himself against straw men.


Conrad Black

What the Times was referring to was not the president’s failure to unleash war but a number of reversals, including a failure to negotiate a trade treaty with Japan and the collapse of the secretary of state’s Middle East peace initiative. As Charles Krauthammer wrote at the end of the week in the Washington Post and elsewhere, there was a “litany of serial embarrassments,” including his puny and derisory response to the Ukraine crisis, an astonishing snub from the king of Saudi Arabia, and the inconsistency between his military intervention in Libya and his aborted promise to attack Syria for crossing the “red line” he decreed against selectively gassing that country’s civilians.

When the president does reply to criticism of his foreign policy, he frequently utters such colossal falsehoods that he incites concerns about the lucidity of his perceptions and his ability to distinguish the truth from wildly self-serving fiction. In his State of the Union message in January, he attributed his supposed success at stopping the Iranian nuclear military program to patient diplomacy backed “by American strength.” There has been no such success. His reply to suggestions that his response to Russian aggression against Ukraine was ineffective was to claim that he had forced Russia “to engage in activities that have been rejected uniformly around the world.” Neville Chamberlain might just as well have reasoned, in the confidence debate that led, 74 years ago this week, to his replacement as British prime minister by Winston Churchill, that his policies had forced Hitler to conquer Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, to the world’s general disapproval.

Only the concern verging on despair of one who always hopes the holder of Mr. Obama’s great office will do well, for America, the West, and the world (and most of them in my lifetime have) causes me to wonder what the president is thinking and talking about. This is all a flight from the facts. Any officeholder has the right to try to put the best face he can on his job performance, but if the president actually believes this bunk, the implications are very unsettling.

All presidents make mistakes. President Eisenhower was aware that he had mishandled the U-2 incident. President Kennedy knew the Bay of Pigs was a dreadful fiasco and knew he had not held his own in the meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961. As President Reagan said after the Iran-Contra shambles, “You take your lumps and move on.” But you don’t tell the world you’re doing brilliantly when the greatest power on earth, under your management, is becoming a laughingstock.

The problem isn’t that this administration isn’t plunging into confrontation and conflict — no sane person is asking for that. The problem is that it is impossible to discern what it is doing. Last week it opined that it is discounting relations with Putin’s Russia, ungrateful beneficiary of the infamous “reset,” and said that it is now going to practice “containment,” as presidents from Truman to George H. W. Bush generally successfully did against the much more powerful Soviet Union, which for 45 years held sway in Central Europe up to within 100 miles of the Rhine. Russia will not be contained by porous sanctions, a Twitter campaign, and the dispatch of 600 troops to Central Europe, which is what has been committed to containing it by Mr. Obama so far, or by the U.S.’s being replaced by Russia as supplier of frontline warplanes to Egypt, as is strongly rumored.

If the president wishes to withdraw to America’s own territory, he should try to get a mandate to do so after a suitably comprehensive policy debate and give America’s allies adequate notice to fill the vacuum America’s withdrawal leaves. What we have now is a Great Power behaving like a schizophrenic mouse and speaking through a twice-chosen leader whose promises of containment are a dissonant misnomer for the abandonment of the agreed American national interests of 70 years. An argument can be made for such a course, though I would not subscribe to it, but no argument can be made for this administration’s transformation of foreign policy into a Gong Show.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].