Fareed Zakaria has a major essay in the July / August issue of Foreign Affairs on “The Self-Destruction of American Power.” His thesis is that U.S. global hegemony “died” “sometime in the last two years.” How? “There were deep structural forces in the international system that inexorably worked against any one nation that accumulated so much power,” Zakaria says. “In the American case, however, one is struck by the ways in which Washington — from an unprecedented position — mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies.” Making matters worse, he continues, is the America First foreign-policy of President Trump.
Standard stuff. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that a certain someone is conspicuously absent from Zakaria’s catalogue of foreign-policy errors. Zakaria criticizes George W. Bush for the Iraq War (which he supported at the time). He chides Donald Trump for a supposed “absence” of foreign policy. Yet Barack Obama goes entirely unmentioned. If you were to read this essay with no prior knowledge of American history, you would come away thinking the Obama presidency never happened.
Zakaria’s history is incomplete. It’s also terribly misleading. Obama’s policies were not ancillary to the diminution of American power. They accelerated it. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq created a vacuum in the region that Iran and ISIS exploited. Obama’s refusal to intervene in the Syria conflict early on, when it might have made a difference, and to enforce the “red line” against chemical weapons he himself had drawn, not only generated a humanitarian catastrophe. These decisions signaled to Russia that it could act with impunity. The result was Putin’s invasion of eastern Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and deployment of ground troops to Syria.
Barack Obama left office with Russia resurgent, China belligerent, Iran berserk, ISIS alive, and North Korea firing long-range missiles. Surely these things are worth mentioning in an article describing “the self-destruction of American power”?