The Obama administration often either denies any responsibility for the current global chaos or claims that it erupted spontaneously. Yet most of the mess was caused by, or made worse by, growing U.S. indifference and paralysis.
Over the last five and a half years, America has had lots of clear choices, but the administration usually took the path of least short-term trouble, which has ensured long-term hardship.
There was no need to “reset” the relatively mild punishments that the George W. Bush administration had accorded Vladimir Putin’s Russia for invading Georgia in 2008. By unilaterally normalizing relations with Russia and trashing Bush, Barack Obama and then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only green-lighted further Russian aggression, which has since spread to Crimea and Ukraine.
There was no need for Obama, almost immediately upon assuming office, to distance the U.S. from Israel by criticizing Israel’s policies and warming to its enemies, such as Hamas and the authoritarian Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan.
Any time Israel’s enemies have glimpsed growing distance in the U.S.–Israeli friendship, they seek only to pry it still wider. We see just that with terrorists in Gaza who launch hundreds of missiles into Israel on the expectation that the U.S. will broker a favorable deal that finds both sides equally at fault.
Sanctions had crippled Iran to the point that it soon would have grown desperate to meet U.S. demands to stop its nuclear enrichment. Instead, Obama eased trade restrictions just as they were coming to fruition. Iran is now on its way to acquiring a bomb, while supplying missiles to Hamas and Hezbollah.
We had an option in Libya to let the tottering but reforming Moammar Qaddafi government fend for itself. Or we could have taken out Qaddafi and then sent in peacekeepers to ensure a transition to ordered government. But the Obama administration did neither. Instead, the U.S. participated in a multi-nation bombing campaign and all but guaranteed that a failed state would be left on Europe’s doorstep. Now we have just closed our embassy in Tripoli and fled the country entirely.
There were once viable choices in Egypt. Instead, the administration managed to alienate the old Hosni Mubarak regime; alienate the elected Muslim Brotherhood, which immediately tried to subvert the democracy; and alienate the military junta that stepped in to stop the Islamization of Egypt. All of these rival groups now have one thing in common: a distrust of the United States.
We could have made a choice in Iraq to negotiate a bit more with the Nouri al-Maliki government, leave behind a few thousand token peacekeepers, and thereby preserve the calm achieved by the surge. Instead, the administration pulled out U.S. soldiers to ensure that a withdrawal would be an effective reelection talking point. The result of that void is the present bloodletting and veritable destruction of Iraq.
The U.S. once had choices in Syria. We could have loudly condemned the Bashar al-Assad government and immediately armed the most pro-Western of the anti-Assad rebels. Or we could have just stayed quiet and stayed out of the mess. Instead, we chose the third — and worst — option: loudly threaten Assad while doing nothing. Now a bloody dictatorship and its bloody jihadist enemies share a general contempt for a perceived weak America.
There were choices on our own border as well. Obama could have advised Central American governments that our southern border was closed to any who would cross illegally, while attempting to remedy the violence in those countries. Instead, the administration opened the border, welcomed in thousands without scrutiny, and has all but destroyed federal immigration law. The result is chaos.
The Obama administration apparently has assumed that calm, not conflict, is the natural order of things. The world supposedly can run on autopilot without much guidance from its only superpower.
If conflict does arise, the U.S. counts on sermonizing without feeling any need to back up tough and often provocative rhetoric with action. When occasional decisions must be made, the U.S. usually chooses the easiest way out: withdrawals, concessions, and appeasement.
Behind these assumptions also lie the administration’s grave doubts that the U.S. has in the past played a positive role in postwar affairs, or that in the present and future America can claim the moral authority — or has the resources — to confront aggressors.
In 2017, Obama may well leave office claiming to have reduced our military while avoiding conflict during his tenure. But will he also be able to assure us that China, Iran, and Russia are less threatening; that the Middle East, the Pacific, and the former Soviet republics are less explosive; that our own border is more secure — and that America is safer?
To paraphrase Robert Frost: Two roads diverged in the world, and we always took the one of least resistance — and that has now made all the difference.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.