Politics & Policy

Foreign-Policy Incoherence

President Obama defends himself against straw men.

After taking refuge in last week’s column in a discussion of the hazards of watching television news, I can no longer conscientiously resist the duty of commenting on President Obama. Last week, when asked about recent American foreign-policy setbacks, prompted by a New York Times front-page article on the subject — a sharp turn from a newspaper that has given the president the benefit of every doubt — he opened a wordy, evasive, and self-pitying reply by attacking Fox News, as if the Times and other components of his media amen corner were still conducting a hallelujah chorus, and then unloaded on all those who urge an instant recourse to force in foreign policy. This had nothing to do with the question, and, while I acknowledged last week that my canvass of the media, for cardiological and digestive reasons, was not complete, I am not aware that anyone is publicly calling for the use of force by the United States anywhere.

This highlights one of the president’s most profoundly irritating and frequently employed techniques: to avoid real issues and try to substitute a masquerade as an aggrieved, put-upon, uncharitably disparaged toiler for the nation, like President Lincoln being caricatured because of his craggy appearance as he fought through the Civil War, or FDR being reviled as a poseur and a class-turncoat for trying to alleviate the Great Depression with ambitious workfare and conservation projects. It is the dutiful and successful president as victim of the snide carpers and whiners among his partisan opponents. All successful and prominent people have to endure some of that, but Mr. Obama has certainly not had an unusual amount of it. This appears to be the successor defense to the hackneyed line that Jimmy Carter and others were recruited to utter, that the president was a victim of unspoken but pervasive racism. Virtually everyone in and near the United States, and everyone in the world who follows American affairs at all and is not a foaming-at-the-mouth Americaphobe, is pleased or relieved that the traditional bar against a non-white’​s being elected president has been discarded. Pigmentation is an utterly absurd and completely uncivilized criterion for casting a vote, and it is a great national as well as personal achievement that Barack Obama smashed that barrier. The great majority of Americans, and all non-Americans who wish the country well, always hope the U.S. president does well, and that was especially true of this president, because of his pioneering achievement as a person of partly African and partly Muslim ancestry. 

President Obama was the first incumbent U.S. president since Martin Van Buren in 1840 to seek reelection without referring to his record. Van Buren was fighting an economic depression largely produced by his mentor and predecessor, Andrew Jackson — whom he had served as vice president and secretary of state — after Jackson’s revocation of the charter of the Bank of the United States. Van Buren could neither pretend the economy was “fundamentally sound” nor attack Jackson, so he conducted an unsuccessful campaign of red herrings and diversions and was defeated by General William H. Harrison with his “cider and log cabin” campaign of boisterous hoopla. Even Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, who were unsuccessful presidents, gamely ran on their records and argued, that, in the first case, “prosperity was just around the corner” and that, in the other, the incumbent “had taken the hard decisions.” They did their best and had their moments and didn’t run away from their records in office.

In 2012, President Obama obfuscated over the health-care debacle; pretended that the murder of an American ambassador in Libya was not the result of a terrorist incident, because he was claiming to have virtually stamped out terrorism; attacked the Roman Catholic Church; accused the Republicans of conducting a war on women, on all categories of benefit recipients, and on working people of modest incomes; and basically dismissed the GOP as a party of warmongering billionaires, exploiters, and crooks. The economic miracle he produced — minimal economic growth, despite an increase in the accumulated national debt of 233 years of independence by 80 percent in four years, with a third of that increase accomplished by having a subsidiary of the Treasury buy its unsold bonds with specially issued notes, an essentially fraudulent increase of the money supply — was never mentioned. Neither was a series of foreign-policy fiascos such as the failed attempt to improve relations with the loopy theocracy in Iran by declining to encourage the opposition (at least 70 percent of the people), who were robbed and persecuted in what was represented as a free presidential election.

As all the world knows, despite this evasive campaign and objectively unimpressive record in office, the president was reelected, though without the riptide of enthusiasm that put him across in 2008. 

What the Times was referring to was not the president’s failure to unleash war but a number of reversals, including a failure to negotiate a trade treaty with Japan and the collapse of the secretary of state’s Middle East peace initiative. As Charles Krauthammer wrote at the end of the week in the Washington Post and elsewhere, there was a “litany of serial embarrassments,” including his puny and derisory response to the Ukraine crisis, an astonishing snub from the king of Saudi Arabia, and the inconsistency between his military intervention in Libya and his aborted promise to attack Syria for crossing the “red line” he decreed against selectively gassing that country’s civilians.

When the president does reply to criticism of his foreign policy, he frequently utters such colossal falsehoods that he incites concerns about the lucidity of his perceptions and his ability to distinguish the truth from wildly self-serving fiction. In his State of the Union message in January, he attributed his supposed success at stopping the Iranian nuclear military program to patient diplomacy backed “by American strength.” There has been no such success. His reply to suggestions that his response to Russian aggression against Ukraine was ineffective was to claim that he had forced Russia “to engage in activities that have been rejected uniformly around the world.” Neville Chamberlain might just as well have reasoned, in the confidence debate that led, 74 years ago this week, to his replacement as British prime minister by Winston Churchill, that his policies had forced Hitler to conquer Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, to the world’s general disapproval.

Only the concern verging on despair of one who always hopes the holder of Mr. Obama’s great office will do well, for America, the West, and the world (and most of them in my lifetime have) causes me to wonder what the president is thinking and talking about. This is all a flight from the facts. Any officeholder has the right to try to put the best face he can on his job performance, but if the president actually believes this bunk, the implications are very unsettling.

All presidents make mistakes. President Eisenhower was aware that he had mishandled the U-2 incident. President Kennedy knew the Bay of Pigs was a dreadful fiasco and knew he had not held his own in the meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961. As President Reagan said after the Iran-Contra shambles, “You take your lumps and move on.” But you don’t tell the world you’re doing brilliantly when the greatest power on earth, under your management, is becoming a laughingstock.

The problem isn’t that this administration isn’t plunging into confrontation and conflict — no sane person is asking for that. The problem is that it is impossible to discern what it is doing. Last week it opined that it is discounting relations with Putin’s Russia, ungrateful beneficiary of the infamous “reset,” and said that it is now going to practice “containment,” as presidents from Truman to George H. W. Bush generally successfully did against the much more powerful Soviet Union, which for 45 years held sway in Central Europe up to within 100 miles of the Rhine. Russia will not be contained by porous sanctions, a Twitter campaign, and the dispatch of 600 troops to Central Europe, which is what has been committed to containing it by Mr. Obama so far, or by the U.S.’s being replaced by Russia as supplier of frontline warplanes to Egypt, as is strongly rumored.

If the president wishes to withdraw to America’s own territory, he should try to get a mandate to do so after a suitably comprehensive policy debate and give America’s allies adequate notice to fill the vacuum America’s withdrawal leaves. What we have now is a Great Power behaving like a schizophrenic mouse and speaking through a twice-chosen leader whose promises of containment are a dissonant misnomer for the abandonment of the agreed American national interests of 70 years. An argument can be made for such a course, though I would not subscribe to it, but no argument can be made for this administration’s transformation of foreign policy into a Gong Show.

— 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 cbletters@gmail.com.


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