The final acts of the Obama foreign policy will play out in the next two years. Unfortunately, bad things happen when the world concludes that the American president has become weakened, distracted, or diffident about foreign policy.
As Richard Nixon became increasingly paralyzed by Watergate in late 1973, the enemies of Israel felt that it was an opportune time to launch their so-called Yom Kippur War. The next year, the negotiated armistice in the Vietnam War collapsed, and the North Vietnamese seized the Mekong Delta and prepared for a final offensive against South Vietnam.
In 1979, after two full years of Jimmy Carter’s reset foreign policy — and after the president’s “malaise” speech and the surreal attack by the aquatic rabbit — various risk-takers concluded that the United States had decided that it either could not or would not intercede against aggression. In short order, the Chinese invaded Vietnam; the Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua, and Central America descended into a Communist miasma; the Iranians took U.S. hostages in Tehran; terrorists stormed Mecca; the Soviets invaded Afghanistan — and, after that last event, President Carter confessed that he had undergone “a dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are.”
Sometimes lame-duck presidents understand that they are perceived as weak or under siege — and yet can recover with resolute action. Iran–Contra by early 1987 had almost fatally damaged Ronald Reagan. But he rallied to negotiate with Gorbachev and promote policies that would lead to the fall of the Soviet Union. By late 1998, Bill Clinton was facing impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but a strong economy and his insistence on intervening in the Balkans against resurgent Milosevic forces saved his presidency. Despite Katrina, the disastrous 2006 midterm election, and popular opposition to the Iraq War, a weakened George W. Bush rallied to save Iraq through the surge and to cobble together punitive measures against Russia after the invasion of Georgia.
We are on such a precipice now, as the perception grows that Barack Obama is mired in scandal, an economy that has been stagnant throughout his tenure, and a disastrous foreign policy. It does no good to speculate whether critics at home are right in thinking that Barack Obama is “weak” in his foreign policy. Nor is there any point in arguing whether Obama believes that the U.S. is exceptional only in the relativist sense that Greece believes it is exceptional, or whether, as he stated more recently, he believes the U.S. is exceptional in absolute terms “with every fiber of [his] being.”
The point is not what we Americans think. Instead, the world abroad, fairly or not, has concluded after five and a half years that the Obama administration is both sanctimonious and absolutely risk averse. Translated, that means the administration likes to give sonorous and platitudinous sermons that needle both our friends and our enemies, but without any intention of seeing them followed by consequences. When Obama in a variety of ways assures the world that he is not George W. Bush, this does not always reassure America’s allies that he is resolute or warn our enemies that he is formidable.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that every foreign-policy initiative the Obama administration has embraced has failed: reset with Russia, the Cairo-speech outreach to Islam, surging in Afghanistan and promising to leave, the confusion over Egypt, lead-from-behind in Libya, bombing scheduled and then abruptly canceled in Syria, pulling every soldier out of Iraq, redefining jihadism through an array of euphemisms, abandoning the tough sanctions against Iran, pressuring the Israelis, a new special relationship with Turkey, and on and on.
Even the less publicized messages that the Obama administration has sent the world have revealed either incompetence or weakness — the failure to destroy the American drone downed and captured by the Iranians, or the sloppy outing of a CIA station chief in Afghanistan.
All the step-over lines, red lines, and deadlines abroad simply mirror-image the domestic false assurances of not losing your doctor or your health plan under Obamacare. The world has caught on that Obama uses a host of emphatics (e.g., Period!, Let me be clear!, Make no mistake about it!) precisely because he seeks to accomplish in speech what he cannot do in fact. Our enemies see one constant in the litany of administration scandals — the VA, IRS, NSA, AP, Fast and Furious, and Benghazi debacles: presidential distraction and indifference. The occasional eloquent presidential proclamations of “outrageous” are not followed by even a smidgeon of consequences.
For a variety of reasons, our European and Pacific partners privately sense that the American-led postwar global order is eroding and that regional hegemons like China, Iran, and Russia are filling the gaps. The Mideast badlands seem to be expanding into Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Iran wishes to do to the Middle East what Russia is doing to the former Soviet Union.
The surge had saved Iraq, and now the post-surge skedaddle is losing it. South America is increasingly regressing into leftwing statism and authoritarianism, assured that the United States either doesn’t care or privately likes its new trajectory. Al-Qaeda is hardly on the run; instead, it is spreading, partly on the suspicion that the United States with neurotic predictability seeks novel ways of not offending radical Islam. When al-Qaeda’s Dr. Zawahiri hears of overseas contingency operations, man-caused disasters, the Muslim-outreach efforts of NASA, jihadism as a personal journey, Guantanamo virtually closed, or civilian trials for terrorists and then not, he is not convinced the U.S. is ready to strike at the first sign of Islamist terror. China believes that the Obama administration is symptomatic of U.S. decline and without the wherewithal to protect its Pacific allies.
Aside from al-Qaeda–sponsored terrorism, there are lots of hot spots around the world that could flare up in the last two years of the Obama administration. Ukraine, the Baltic states, and the rest of the periphery of Putin’s Russia; Taiwan, the air and sea space surrounding Japan, the Vietnam-China border, the 38th parallel; Cyprus and the Aegean; the hostile neighborhood of Israel; Iran with its defiant nuclear efforts; and on and on. Some authoritarian rogue state or terrorist in the next 30 months may well risk aggression, on the expectation that never in the last half-century has there been a better opportunity to readjust the status quo. When Obama proclaims that climate change is now the most pressing American foreign-policy challenge, many bad actors abroad feel relieved — as if coal burning rather than aggression is about the only sin that might anger America.
Before Obama leaves office, we will see either some sort of Carter-like about-face in U.S. foreign policy, or aggression of a sort not seen since 1979 — or both.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.