National Security & Defense

What Happened to Obama’s Humanitarianism?

Syrian refugees at a Turkish border crossing, June 2015. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty)

There’s a great incongruity between people and policy when it comes to the Obama administration and foreign policy. Many of President Obama’s senior foreign-policy officials are students of liberal humanitarianism, which is a style of international relations that seeks robust American leadership to combat global suffering. Yet in President Obama’s foreign policy, liberal humanitarianism is now nearly non-existent. Instead, what liberals once proudly celebrated has now become a dirty theory for an administration that is extremely hesitant about using American power to pursue moral objectives.

When one looks at Obama’s foreign-policy team, this is deeply surprising. Take Susan Rice. Before becoming Obama’s U.N. ambassador and national-security adviser, Rice worked in the Clinton administration. After witnessing the consequences of President Clinton’s acquiescence to the Rwandan Genocide, Rice made a solemn pledge: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”

Samantha Power asserted in 2008 that Obama would, if necessary, use military force to prevent foreign atrocities. But that was then.

Then there’s Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power. A longtime proponent of humanitarian interventionism, Power authored a book, A Problem from Hell, that called for greater American resolve in the face of atrocities abroad. Campaigning for then–candidate Obama in 2008, Power asserted that Obama would, if necessary, use military force to prevent foreign atrocities. Rice and Power were far from alone in their liberal-hawk sentiments. Those who joined them on the Obama-campaign bandwagon spoke proudly, indeed unashamedly, of a new era of American humanitarian boldness (think President Marshall’s “be afraid” speech at the beginning of Air Force One).

Obama himself was once a fervent liberal humanitarian. While many analysts claim that the president has always been a cautious realist, his pre-2008 record proves otherwise. He gave speeches expressing his opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq (he was not in office, so he did not actually vote against it at the time), but Obama firmly supported the war in Afghanistan, which he called the “good war.” And in 2006, he argued in favor of sending U.S. attack helicopters to Darfur. Indeed, declaring victory on election night in 2008, Obama promised: “A new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down — we will defeat you.”

But that was then. As president, Obama has been — and is — a very different man. Just ask Bashar al-Assad. Since 2011, the Syrian dictator has murdered hundreds of thousands, including by using chemical weapons against civilians. In the face of Assad’s increasing use of chemical weapons, the Obama administration threatened military force. It was a defining liberal-humanitarian moment: a choice to use military means to support international humanitarian norms. But then Assad kept gassing. And in September 2013, Obama fully retreated under a WMD-Ponzi scheme brokered by President Putin. In 2015, Assad continues to use chemical weapons at will.

But Syria is just the tip of the iceberg. And it’s not as if President Obama is alone in his lack of interest in humanitarianism; his team fully supports him. Last week, a CNN host asked Susan Rice about the risk of Iran’s using its post-nuclear-deal bonanza of $100 billion to support its terrorism activities. Rice was flippant in her response: “They may be able to send money [to terrorists], yes.” It was a telling quote — because Rice knows exactly how Iran will use that money. It will terrorize the fragile democracies of Lebanon and Iraq, and further destabilize Syria, Yemen, and the broader Middle East. Still, her confidence in virtuous non-intervention reveals the broader purge of liberal humanitarianism from the Obama White House.

But this reality isn’t limited to American policy in the Middle East. Take the continent of Africa. Obama’s pending visit to Kenya will generate great media attention, but how many reporters will shine the light on his foreign-policy record in Africa, which is antithetical to liberal humanitarianism? Facing intensely brutal conflicts in the Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia, and elsewhere, President Obama has — with few exceptions — employed force only for U.S. counterterrorism interests. And even then, the exceptions, such as Obama’s military deployments to Uganda, are noteworthy for what they reveal: a fundamental disconnect of strategic intent (decapitating the Lord’s Resistance Army terrorist group) and means applied (around 150 soldiers searching a vast jungle hideout). Sometimes — as with his policy toward Nigeria’s Boko Haram terrorist group — Obama’s strategic disconnect has been patently absurd. In Boko Haram’s case, the Obama administration first refused to identify the throat-cutters as terrorists, then it ignored their terrorism, and then it responded with a Twitter-hashtag campaign.

Related: #HellfireBokoHaram

Now let’s look at Europe: Consider, for example, Obama’s reaction to the July 2014 Russian-supported downing of the MH-17 passenger jet. As Russian intelligence officers and drunken thugs roamed around the crash site, European nations looked for American leadership. Instead, Obama barely shrugged. No one has been brought to justice for that war crime. Or how about this month’s 20-year memorial for the Srebrenica massacre? Neither Obama nor Biden attended. Instead, the American delegation was led by the local U.S. ambassador. Security concerns are no excuse: If the president can go to Pakistan, then a vice president can go to Bosnia. This was indifference, pure and simple.

And let’s be clear that the American Left largely supports President Obama’s shedding of liberal humanitarianism. Today, leading foreign-policy writers on the left such as Peter Beinart criticize Obama when, in any small way, he bucks the notion of American strategic retrenchment. Such criticism is motivated by liberals’ intense discomfort with the notion of American exceptionalism.

So why has Obama abandoned liberal humanitarianism? I think there are three reasons. First, the president’s strategic vision is seared by America’s suffering in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. This is why he wouldn’t support the surge as a senator, and why he had no interest in preserving a U.S. presence in Iraq after 2011. Second, and as an extension to the first point, Obama believes that foreign populations must resolve their own problems without America’s help. Obama seems to think that American hesitation will force consensus among warring parties abroad. Third, Obama holds that the American-led international order is best sustained by global institutions and mutual economic interests. The president seems to trust that America’s military deterrence is absolute — we have no need to make any show of force. This is why President Obama appears confident that supplicant diplomatic pressure will eventually deter Chinese, Iranian, and Russian aggression.

Related: A New Strategic Blueprint for Defeating the Islamic State

Regardless, the decline of liberal humanitarianism is now undeniable. To be fair, if the president were correct in his self-assessment as a realist, this wouldn’t be a problem. But in 2015, American foreign policy is largely disconnected from American values, leaving a power vacuum in troubled regions around the globe. And that vacuum is fueling a belief among allies and foes alike that Obama’s realism is — put simply — fundamentally un-realistic.

There is a moral cost to this retrenchment. These days, the only foreign-policy issue that seems to inspire passionate moral conviction in Obama is climate change. And it is here that the hypocrisy of President Obama’s foreign policy comes full circle: Gas emissions are reprehensible, unless they’re directed into the lungs of Syrian civilians.

That’s not a doctrine of liberal humanitarianism, or realism, or . . . anything.

Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a writer and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at The Steamboat Institute and tweets @TomRtweets.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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