All polls and even informal observations by well-connected people confirm that the world’s opinion of the United States as a serious world power has eroded markedly. As President Obama and his entourage and imperishable following persevere in their conviction that this president’s benign championship of non-intervention, arms control, and giving rogue states the benefit of the doubt is winning hearts and minds to a new conception of a kindly, detached America, it is clearer every week that this administration’s foreign policy is contemplated with astonishment and contempt by practically everyone else. The Europeans, putative allies — a fact that, since the U.S. abandoned isolation, has meant a ready preparedness to have the U.S. liberate them from the Nazis and then protect them from the Soviet Communists, but means almost nothing now — are almost uniformly incredulous at the syncopations of recent American foreign policy.
President Carter was instrumental in removing the shah of Iran, the greatest ally the U.S. has ever had in the Middle East, not excluding Anwar Sadat and the Israelis, and the most enlightened leader in the 5,000-year history of Persia. President Reagan maintained civilized relations with Iraq in order to be on normal terms with one of the major Persian Gulf countries, and it may be a long time before there is agreement on exactly what Saddam Hussein concluded from his meeting with U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie on July 25, 1990, before subjugating Kuwait. (Ms. Glaspie’s next overseas posting was consul general in Cape Town.) President George H. W. Bush conducted a masterly coalition response to evict Saddam from Kuwait, but left him in power in Baghdad, massacring Kurds and putting on airs of triumph before the Muslim world. President Clinton pursued his zeal for nuclear non-proliferation to the point of imposing embargoes on both India and Pakistan when they acquired that capability, leaving the U.S. without any country to speak with in a normal and constructive manner all through South Asia between Jordan and Thailand. The initial campaign against terrorists, which attracted universal support and has been largely successful, mutated into overthrowing Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush promoted democracy to the point of destabilizing the friendly governments of Egypt and Pakistan and securing the democratic election victories of the anti-democratic Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. By dismissing the entire government and armed forces and police of Iraq, 400,000 men unemployed but retaining their weapons and ammunition, Bush ensured the country’s descent into an unorganized bloodbath, and President Obama, by his abrupt withdrawal, ensured the preeminence, in most of the country, of Iran, and a slugging match between Iranian proxies and the Islamic State death squads.
It is now impossible to make the case that the operation to remove Saddam was strategically justifiable. But President George W. Bush at least left his successor a war that was being conducted more or less successfully by the Americans and their allies on Inauguration Day, 2009. President Obama’s withdrawal of all American forces, after a disagreement about applicable law for U.S. servicemen with the admittedly impossible prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki (an Iranian stooge, but one whose stolen reelection the Obama administration tolerated), has led to a fairly steady and recently precipitate descent of international comprehension of long-term American goals and perceived interests.
The Obama administration believes that U.S. involvement in the world has been largely harmful.
It is a painful and notorious narrative. The Obama administration believes that U.S. involvement in the world has been largely harmful: Obama has decried the lack of alliance consultation by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as they directed the war efforts of the Western Allies “brandies in hand.” He has apologized for President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb against Japan and for President Eisenhower’s approval of the removal of (the wildly incompetent if not mad) Mohammad Mosaddegh as leader of Iran and the return of the shah. This was an astonishing sequence of criticisms of three of America’s most distinguished leaders and arguably the most generally esteemed statesman in the world of the past 150 years (Churchill).
It is understandable and defensible that the president thought the U.S. should be less involved in the world, but the way to execute such an important change of course, like the manner of America’s emergence from isolation after World War II, was to explain the reasons for it, gain a national and congressional consensus for the policy change, and implement it in consultation with affected countries. Instead, this administration has tried to suck and blow simultaneously: To its domestic followers, it has been curbing adventurism and closing open wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan. To the world, it has been withdrawing from some areas, where America’s mission has been completed (as in the elimination of organized terrorism, despite al-Qaeda’s murder of the American ambassador to Libya in Benghazi), but what was really a retrenchment to America was billed as a “pivot to Asia.”
Despite these departures from longstanding policy, President Obama has continued to maintain that America’s influence is not only undiminished but enhanced. He declined to lift a finger to remove Qaddafi in Libya or Assad in Syria until it was too late to have much influence on events, but grandiloquently announced that they “should go.” And in Syria, we had the deconstruction of American security policy ad absurdum: The Sixth Fleet was dispatched to shower Assad with cruise missiles for gassing his own citizens; then the constitutionally established post of commander-in-chief was abdicated to Congress, which, as it balked at military action, was assured by Secretary of State Kerry that the action would be “unbelievably small” (which raised serious doubts about its deterrent and punitive value). This was the same John Kerry who ran for president in 2004 saying that he voted for the invasion of Iraq but against funding it. Obama spared himself a rebuke from the Congress by seizing on an offhand comment by Russian president Vladimir Putin and dumping the resolution of the matter in his kindly lap. This was as close as the administration got to the famous “reset” of relations with Russia.
President Obama has continued to maintain that America’s influence is not only undiminished but enhanced.
The Iraqi army has melted away, despite billions of American dollars’ having been spent in recruiting, training, and equipping it. The tribes of Anbar, adjacent to Baghdad, who were the subject of much attention in the successful Bush “surge,” are unimpressed with the remnants of the Baghdad regime and hostile to the Iranian-led Shiites, who are now, unbelievably, the first line of defense of the American-sponsored Iraqi regime. As the provincial capital of Ramadi fell last week to ISIS, the president and his spokespeople, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, who sets new records for implausible boosterism each week as a flack for the latest administration embarrassments, have joined in orchestrated denial that it is a serious setback.
There is now no discernible U.S. strategy in Iraq. The administration claims to support the Baghdad government of Haider al-Abadi, who replaced Maliki, but it gives al-Abadi practically no support. It won’t commit ground forces or mount a serious aerial offensive and is reduced to encouraging Iran to chase ISIS into Syria. This policy can only lead to greater bloodshed in Syria, while delivering all Iraq apart from Kurdistan to the militant Islamic and soon to be nuclear-armed theocracy of Iran. Once again, like George W. leading America’s allies into Afghanistan and then decamping to Iraq, Obama rounded up some allies to fight ISIS but has essentially handed the war off to Iran, America’s and the West’s greatest enemy in the Middle East.The president has convinced himself that the open-ended appeasement of Iran will replicate the Nixon-Kissinger triumph with China. But they made no concessions to the Chinese: They agreed that there was one China but that Taiwan would not be reunited with the mainland by force, and it has not been. The Chinese assisted the U.S. in strong-arming Hanoi into a peace agreement. (Everyone knew the North Vietnamese would violate its terms, but it was assumed that the U.S. would respond by a revival of its successful bombing campaign of 1972–73, which it would have done if the Democrats had not crucified Nixon over the idiocy of Watergate.) Obama is handing Iraq to Iran as he gives Iran a green light to nuclear weapons, at the latest in ten years, as he unblocks $150 billion that has been frozen, without even getting a reduction in rhetorical abuse from Tehran. Tom Friedman of the New York Times infamously called it a “doctrine,” in the sense of the Stimson or Truman or Nixon doctrines. But insipidity, irresolution, and obfuscation do not constitute a doctrine. America’s traditional allies have lost all respect for American foreign-policy-making, and have certainly not replaced it with any sense of purpose of their own. As the U.S. cranks up to another presidential election, and rhetoric echoes loudly around the country about “the greatest nation in human history” (certainly a fair description in many respects), Americans should be aware of how the country is perceived by foreigners. Never mind the usual international-Left caricature of a police-run, coast-to-coast shooting gallery in the rubble heaps of many American cities (and there is unfortunately some truth to this version also), it has almost become, as President Nixon warned, “a pitiful, helpless giant.”
This is a reversible condition, of course, but after four terms of almost unrelieved bipartisan official incompetence, America has dug itself into a deep hole, a process in which both the Bushes and the Clintons have done their part.
— 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].