National Security & Defense

Obama’s 2015 Foreign-Policy Neverland Invites Three New Crises in 2016

Irananian presdient Hassan Rouhani (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty)

Think of a wonderful thought, any merry little thought. Think of Christmas, think of snow, think of sleigh bells, off you go, like reindeer in the sky! You can fly! You can fly! You can fly!

— Disney’s Peter Pan, 1953

In July, I used that Peter Pan quote to describe Donald Trump’s impossible Neverland. Yet having digested the Obama administration’s 2015 foreign-policy review and its Twitter hashtag (#2015in5words), I conclude that the quote is equally applicable to American foreign policy. After all, the administration’s review actually claims that 2015 was a successful year. These successes apparently include establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba (freedom forgotten), defeating transnational Salafi-jihadists “violent extremists” (Parisians might disagree), reaching a deal on an “ensured” peaceful Iran nuclear program (Iran is already cheating without any meaningful response), and “bringing peace, security to Syria.” Welcome to Obama’s Neverland.

Unfortunately, this isn’t funny. Because in the real world outside Neverland, international politics are not static. And in 2016, while President Obama thrives in unreality, America’s global adversaries will do the opposite. Assessing Obama’s weakness, they will push hard to extract all they can before another president takes office. In that regard, we should expect three new crises in 2016.

First, expect new ISIS attacks against Europe and the United States. Nowhere is the president’s predilection for invented realities more obvious than in his Syria policy. But having now surrendered to Putin’s demand that Assad retain power indefinitely, President Obama has acquiesced to Assad’s genocide against Sunnis. This latest example of progressives’ moral hypocrisy allows ISIS to retain its fertile breeding ground for recruitment and escalation. And while we should welcome recent victories such as the recapture this week of Ramadi in Anbar, Iraq, we must not overvalue the strategic significance of the Ramadi victory. Because unless and until America turns the flag of ISIS into a symbol for the walking dead, ISIS will keep inspiring (think San Bernardino) and recruiting (think Paris) jihadists across the earth. ISIS’s global capacity to wage its existential war on the West will only grow. Moreover, as ISIS continues to infiltrate migrant routes, its potential to inflict mass-casualty attacks will remain significant. The Obama administration surely is aware of this. It must urgently escalate the campaign to destroy ISIS (here’s my proposal).

RELATED: Three Takeaways from the Ramadi Battle against ISIS

Second, expect a skirmish between America’s allies and China in the East and South China Seas. In 2015, the Obama administration endorsed China’s imperial campaign to construct new islands in the international waters of the East and South China Seas. Appallingly, President Obama is now openly apologizing to China for U.S. flights in international airspace. He has shown that his “Asian pivot” matters only to the degree that China pretends to embrace the Paris climate agreement. For China, of course, the climate deal was made in heaven: an empire in return for unbinding, unenforceable commitments to take action in the future.

China perceives America’s collapse of resolve as an opening to bully U.S. allies such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan.

Yet for U.S. allies in Asia, Obama’s weakness is catastrophic. That’s because China perceives America’s collapse of resolve as an opening to bully U.S. allies such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. But in 2016, as China strengthens its dominion over crucial oceanic trade routes, American allies will probably stage shows of force in an attempt to deter Chinese aggression. These populations — especially in Vietnam — are furious at China’s expansionism. At the same time, their leaders know that if China is successful, their countries will effectively become provinces of an authoritarian Chinese empire. But even recognizing that China is far stronger, they cannot yield for the sake of their sovereignty, pride, and economic future.

Correspondingly, as these nations increase their military activity near China’s constructed islands, China will probably employ force to deter them. It’s likely this will involve limited force aimed at sinking a patrol ship or shooting down a jet. But the inherent risks of escalation are obvious.

RELATED: Doing Stupid Stuff in the South China Sea

American resolve will thus be critical in 2016. We should not forget the cards we hold. While China seeks to expand its zone of influence, it also seeks global prestige. Given China’s economic and military vulnerabilities, the U.S. should escalate its military patrols over and alongside China’s man-made islands. In doing so, we will remind China that our capability — both seen (aircraft and surface vessels) and unseen (attack submarines) — is significant. This needn’t invite conflict; China will back off once it recognizes America’s resolution. But absent American resolution, conflict is far likelier.

#share#Third, expect Iran to continue cheating on the nuclear deal. In response, expect the Sunni monarchies to increasingly embrace sectarian extremism. This is the easiest prediction — Iran is already breaking its nuclear-deal commitments by testing ballistic missiles, which are the delivery platform for Iran’s future nuclear weapons. Indeed, Iran is using the nuclear deal as a way to get the best of all worlds: In return for his pen to paper, Ayatollah Khamenei has won sanctions relief and a huge economic injection into his kleptocratic economy. Iran also knows that once European firms board the lucrative Tehran money train, EU political support for a sanctions “snapback” will collapse. In short, Iran is building a nuclear-weapons delivery capability while also strengthening its economy and the power of the ruling elite. (This is why I voted Ayatollah Khamenei my “biggest winner of the year” on The McLaughlin Group.)

RELATED: The Iran Deal: Persisting Problems 

The Iran deal shreds the balance of power in the Middle East. Consider Thucydides’ enduring analysis of what caused the Peloponnesian War: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power [think Iran] and the fear that this caused in Sparta [think Sunni monarchies].” Put simply, the Sunni monarchies will respond to Iran’s new power by giving more support to anti-Iranian sectarian extremists. We’re already seeing this dynamic in Syria, where Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming uncontrollable jihadist groups outside ISIS (Qatar has also allowed its citizens to fund ISIS). The most notable Saudi reaction to Iran’s growing power came this month with the announcement of a Sunni anti-Iran military coalition of 34 nations.

And it’s not just the Iran deal that’s upping the risks of war. While Iran has been bloodied by the Syrian conflict, it’s Baghdad, and not Damascus, that is the center of gravity in the regional power struggle. And to the consternation of the Saudis, Iran is triumphing in Baghdad. Supporters of Obama’s Iran policy are foolish to neglect this gathering whirlwind. They should listen to our oldest ally: not the dysfunctional House of Saud, but France. The French are very concerned.

In the empowerment of Iran’s hardliners we see the utter delusion of President Obama’s foreign-policy Neverland.

This week, via Twitter, I asked French ambassador Gérard Araud (who recently offered a thinly veiled criticism of Obama’s Syria policy) about the Iran deal. Araud responded as he had to: “It is a good agreement. We’ll have to be vigilant about its strict implementation.” But then I asked Araud whether he believed the U.S. had responded aggressively enough to Iran’s ballistic-missile testing. He did not respond. And that’s no surprise. Behind the diplomatic nice-talk, France is greatly concerned by American acquiescence to Iranian games. The French know that the Sunni monarchies are going crazy and that if Iran continues to cheat without reprisal, a much larger sectarian war is likely (imagine the sectarian violence of 2006 Iraq — but a thousand times more potent in scale and ferocity).

In the empowerment of Iran’s hardliners (where do you think the sanctions money will go?), we see the utter delusion of President Obama’s foreign-policy Neverland and his failure to realize that truly effective diplomacy is measured not by one moment but by the consequences of diplomacy over the long term.

#related#My New Year’s Eve advice: In early 2016, the U.S. must compel Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. More specifically, if Iran continues playing games, we should take the suggestion of General James Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command, and initiate a blockade. Regardless, we must remind ourselves that the ayatollah and his hardliners need the deal far more than we do.

President Obama likes to pretend that American leadership can offer only two courses: his way or total war. But he is wrong. The chaos of 2015 shows what happens when America’s active diplomacy is not backed by strength. With the exception of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in 2015, global events have been shaped by our adversaries and our allies have retreated in our absence. The world has descended into ever-metastasizing danger. If America does not once again offer credible diplomacy, supported by credible force, #2016willbringbloodychaos.

— Tom Rogan is a writer for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets at TomRtweets. His homepage is

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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