Obama’s Failure to Lead
The president has abdicated his real responsibilities abroad.

President Obama speaks in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009.


What about the president’s leadership on Iran, our chief foreign-policy challenge? Mr. Obama came into office thinking that U.S.–Iranian “tension” reflected not Iran’s fanatical Khomeinist ideology but its justifiable resentment of America. In his 2009 Cairo speech, he effectively apologized: “For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”

Days later, when ordinary Iranians rose up in the largest protests ever to challenge the Khomeinist regime — and regime forces murdered dissidents in plain view — President Obama remained passive. His response was consistent with the sense of guilt he voiced in his Cairo speech, and with the view that America lacks moral authority to act as leader of the free world. He had committed himself to “engagement” with Iran’s rulers and evidently feared offending them.

With the popular revolt crushed and Tehran’s nuclear efforts continuing, President Obama’s Iran policy focuses now on tightening sanctions. He boasts of more international support for that project than ever before, and many Europeans do in fact support tougher sanctions. But Russia, China, and Turkey continue to oppose them despite American “resets” and pleas.

In any event, sanctions are not an end in themselves. President Obama hopes sanctions will pressure Iran to resume diplomacy. But to what end? There is no realistic prospect that Iran’s leaders can be negotiated out of their determination to obtain nuclear weapons.

President Obama’s idea of leadership has proven barren also in other spheres. China makes aggressive territorial claims, invests in a major military build-up and refuses help on crucial issues such as North Korea and Iran. The Obama administration has made major cuts in the U.S. defense budget without first persuading our NATO allies to increase their defense spending commensurately. The president delivered a major speech on the Arab Spring in May that proposed no diplomatic initiatives. France and Britain, not the United States, led the belated action to oppose Qaddafi. Today the Arab League and Turkey, not the United States, are the principal outside powers influencing events in Syria. President Obama’s quarrels with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have produced no progress toward Palestinian-Israeli peace, while bringing U.S.-Israeli relations to their lowest point in many years.

Mr. Obama has grounds to claim credit for killing bin Laden. But that did not alter the direction of American national-security policy. Renouncing American leadership does.

— Doug Feith and Seth Cropsey are both senior fellows at Hudson Institute. Mr. Feith served as under secretary of defense for policy from 2001 to 2005 and is the author of War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (Harper 2008). Mr. Cropsey served as a naval officer from 1985 to 2004 and as deputy under secretary of the Navy in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.