John Brennan, Chuck Hagel, and John Kerry will be confirmed. The three will provide a force-multiplying effect on the Obama foreign policy of disengagement. The chameleon Brennan will be very different from David Petraeus at the CIA; Hagel is no circumspect Leon Panetta; and there was a reason why the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state was greeted with praise in a way John Kerry’s will not be. The trio is less competent than their predecessors, but also perhaps more representative of a country on its way to a $20 trillion national debt and a “lead from behind” foreign policy of managed decline.
Let us take stock of the world since 2008. Reset with Russia was an abject failure; and relations with Vladimir Putin have never been frostier — and pettier, as even the U.S. adoption of Russian orphans has now ended. Nothing is more counterproductive than to lecture a proud rival nation from a position of looming financial and military weakness.
China remains China: an enigma, as liberals wait for its new wealth to translate into political reform, while conservatives expect instead that Chinese profits will more likely lead to a powerful authoritarian military eager to challenge America. The more Obama talks of global arms reduction and a nuclear-free world, coupled with a lower U.S. profile, the more likely South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan will be to make contingency plans to go nuclear.
Not since the end of World War II has the Mediterranean world been such a mess. On the northern shore, the insolvent Spain, Italy, and Greece threaten to bring down the entire European Union. None of the three can continue to borrow as before, nor apparently can they cut back enough to remain solvent. None has a military to speak of — in a neighborhood increasingly dangerous.
To the east, Syria is on its way to becoming Somalia — but a quagmire much closer to Europe. The West goes back and forth, sometimes fearful that the thug Assad won’t go, sometimes worried that what would replace him would be far worse. Likewise, Mohamed Morsi’s new Egypt is now a mix of Iran and Haiti, a theocracy ruling over a wrecked economy, a nonexistent tourist industry, and a massive flight of capital and expertise. In a year, Morsi may pull off the impossible feat of making Hosni Mubarak look good. Why we continue to give sophisticated weaponry to this fascistic, anti-Semitic ex-professor from southern California remains unexplained. Turkey is an Obama favorite; but why is not quite clear, as it clamps down on internal dissent, becomes increasingly Islamist in the imperial-Ottoman sense, and grows as hostile to Israel as it was once friendly.
Leading from behind turned Libya from an odious but secure dictatorship into a chaotic terrorist haven. Hostage executions now characterize Algeria. The understandable intervention by the French in Mali to stop an Islamic takeover is nonetheless the sort of unilateral “neo-colonialist” operation that they used to smear Americans for — a fact that is mostly ignored by American liberals and seen with Schadenfreude by conservatives. Obama has forged an odd domestic coalition that supports his deliberate diminution of American power abroad: liberals who like the savings abroad in order to splurge at home and who resent the use of raw power; conservatives who are in no mood to support intervention given the demagoguery they suffered over the war on terror and Iraq. The result is that nothingness has become the new Obama foreign policy.
Relations with Israel have reached an all-time low, but will further descend with the ascent of John Brennan at the CIA and Chuck Hagel at Defense. Both will let Obama at last be Obama, and he, by admission, alone knows what is in Israel’s best interests. The Iranian nuclear weapon is a matter of when, not if; the only mystery is how clever will be the foreign-policy establishment’s post-facto rationalizations about how Iran can be contained. But if a nuclear Iran is supposed to be managed like nuclear Pakistan, what neighbor will play the role of India to keep it in check?
After all that, no wonder the Obama administration is now “pivoting” toward Asia. Let us hope that the Sea of Japan does not turn into another Mediterranean. In any case, new American oil and gas drilling on private land, Obama’s own personal story, his thinly disguised distaste for European traditions, and the demographic reality in the U.S. of a relatively smaller European-American population make the changes easier to take for a people exhausted by European ankle-biting, Islamic terrorism, corrupt oil intrigue, and the one-election, one-time “Arab Spring.” Goodbye, Mediterranean.
Our war on terror is now reduced to euphemisms and symbols about moderate Islam — masking a deadly escalation in targeted assassinations via drones. That paradox is quite sustainable because the American progressive media decided that waterboarding three confessed terrorists for information about future terrorist plots was an intolerable crime, whereas rendering 3,000 suspected terrorists mute through remote-controlled Hellfire missiles is not. Because we no longer have a truly honest and independent press, the limits of tolerance for U.S. mishaps have expanded as never before. Losing an ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, with no real idea of why they were so vulnerable or, indeed, why they were all there in the first place, is a curious artifact, not a scandal. Al-Qaeda was declared on the run by the Obama administration — an ironic truth, because it is metastasizing in new directions, to Algeria, Libya, Mali, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, even as we declare jihadism to be a personal journey.
The George McClellan–like plan for leaving Iraq and Afghanistan on strict timetables, after much lost American blood and treasure, perhaps will bring a sense of release to Americans who are tired of both those ungrateful places. Yet soon some disturbing videos of what our abdications wrought — reminiscent of Saigon in 1975 or Kurdistan in 1991 — may usher in as much moral embarrassment for us as joy for our enemies.
Looming behind these changes in U.S. foreign policy is the reality of borrowing nearly $6 trillion in four years, with another $4 trillion scheduled in the Obama second term. That massive indebtedness — known as “investments” or “stimulus” — will weaken U.S. influence and eventually ensure huge defense cuts in the manner of the 1990s. As it is now, behind almost every current American foreign initiative is the reality that 40 cents on the dollar are borrowed to pay for it — a fact well appreciated by our opportunistic enemies in waiting.
As the U.S. slowly withdraws, in the manner of the British before and after World War II, all the old hot spots that have receded in our memory — Cyprus, the Aegean between Greece and Turkey, the Falklands, the 38th Parallel, the Persian Gulf, contested islands off Japan — will become news again. If Afghanistan does not return to its pre-9/11 status as a terrorist haven, then Somalia, Sudan, or Yemen will have to do.
In short, interested parties rightly assume the U.S. cannot or will not intervene abroad. They envision making opportune territorial adjustments during this remaining four-year window of opportunity — just as China invaded Vietnam, Russia went into Afghanistan, Communists infiltrated Central America, and Islamists stormed our embassy in Tehran in the waning years of the Carter administration.
Will the world lament the consequences of a U.S. retreat? Not likely.
A theme of Western philosophy from Plato to Tocqueville has been the people’s preference for equality, rather than greater freedom and prosperity with the attendant cost of inequality. The idea of an America more or less the same as other countries — imperiled by debt, class tensions, and festering social problems, and without a global footprint — will be welcome news to most of the world, even as their own neighborhoods become much poorer and more dangerous places.
Indeed, the worse the U.S. performs, and the lower the American profile abroad, the more the world likes Barack Obama — almost as if to say, “At last, they’re just like us.”