As I wrote in the print edition of NR in an article about President Obama’s foreign policy (“The Enemy of My Friend,” August 13), the prestige and influence of the United States have eroded dramatically during the past four years. A proximate cause was the president’s desire to make a clean break from former president George W. Bush by cultivating warm relations with adversaries, giving traditional allies short shrift.
But the administration has also been beset by a more fundamental problem: the lack of any overarching vision for the conduct of foreign policy. (Grandiose talking points don’t count.) This administration’s foreign policy has been one of managing each crisis as it comes, with no consideration of how the crises are interrelated, and failing at every step to take advantage of historic opportunities.
A recent case among many: The administration and the IMF are both structuring massive assistance packages for Egypt, at the same time as Egypt is drafting its new constitution. But nobody in the administration has suggested that the aid should be conditioned on the emerging constitutional order, or even that there should be any connection at all between foreign assistance and the health of a country’s basic institutions of government.
Compare that with the administration of George H. W. Bush, and how brilliantly it managed the liquidation of the Soviet empire. President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III spoke extensively about the constitutional criteria that the new states would have to meet in order to enjoy full recognition and full relations with the West. This gave post-Communist states important benchmarks and standards of behavior to aspire to.
Today, the need for reform throughout the Arab world — from the kingdoms to the transitional states — cries out for a unified approach based on objective criteria. And yet the administration has utterly failed to forge one. Indeed, it has barely managed to impress upon the Egyptian government that letting mobs attack our embassy is a major problem.
A foreign policy that combines realism with our highest principles would never “lead from behind,” even in those situations where our interests are less weighty. The United States has been, and must remain, a pivotal force for peace and prosperity around the world. American exceptionalism is a humanist priority. It’s hardly surprising that this crucial historical truth seems so lost on a president who thinks America is no more exceptional than Greece.