Presidents who believe in the greatness of America project that greatness in their foreign policy. They cultivate alliances with countries that share American values, confront adversaries that oppose them, and seek to advance our nation’s long-term strategic interests. So if a president believes that the values that made our country great — limited government, economic liberty, and self-reliance — are merely a recipe for what he calls “social Darwinism,” what would you expect his foreign policy to look like?
Traditional allies might get short shrift while adversaries found sympathy. Demonstrations of modesty in multilateral fora might lead to repeated embarrassments (as happened a few weeks ago when Russia and China again vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria). Grandiloquent catch phrases might take the place of a strong vision for the conduct of foreign policy. And policy might default to the inconsistent management of immediate crises, leaving history to shape itself quite heedless of the administration’s goals. So it has been under President Obama.
This pattern has been clearest in the Middle East, where Obama has presided over a dangerous deterioration in America’s strategic position. For more than three decades, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak singlehandedly upheld Arab commitments in the Camp David Accords and kept the peace with Israel. He was repaid for this when, after mob protests in Cairo forced him to announce he would not seek reelection, the White House called for him to leave immediately. He was shunted from power a week later. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was furious and warned Obama that, if the Arab Spring led to violent protests elsewhere in the region, the Muslim Brotherhood could soon be toppling American allies throughout the Middle East.
With Iran, the Obama administration’s first move was to offer an open hand. By all accounts, Obama was resigned to the fact that it would probably be rebuffed, but to his credit he realized that a rejection of his overture would help marshal support against Iran. And it has: International sanctions — imposed by the European Union as well as the United Nations — have become undeniably painful for the regime. But although sanctions may eventually help bring the regime down, they alone will never stop it from getting nuclear weapons. The administration’s policy is therefore proving ineffectual in terms of its stated goals.
Obama’s initial public opening to Iran was accompanied by an exchange of private letters with Iran’s odious supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. During his inaugural address, in an implicit promise to Iran, Obama declared, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” On June 4, 2009, as this exchange reached perhaps its most promising point, Obama delivered a speech in Cairo that was meant to herald “a new beginning” in the Middle East.
Iran’s response could be seen on television less than two weeks later, when the Basij, a government-sponsored militia reminiscent of the Brown Shirts, brutally repressed hundreds of thousands of civilians who had taken to the streets to protest yet another stolen election. Not wanting to abandon a strategy for which he still held out some hope, Obama merely expressed “deep concern” for the protesters and asserted that, “despite numerous differences, there is still room for cooperation” with Iran. Pro-democracy activists in Iran were dismayed by the lack of support from America.
Obama called for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to step down, but only after waiting for months as Assad obliterated whole neighborhoods with heavy artillery. The civilian death toll in Syria is now well over 10,000, and still the Obama administration has done nothing tangible. The Syria crisis is a fearsome nettle, to be sure. Nobody has a good idea how to deal with it. But we must start by recognizing that Syria is of particular concern to the United States. This is not just because the promotion of human rights is a part of our foreign policy, but also because, after Iran, Syria is the Middle Eastern regime most dangerous to American interests. The U.S. should be actively seeking an end to Assad’s regime, working with the many governments that would be thrilled to see him go. We should be focused on stepping up and shaping a provisional government, making sure that it can be a partner in building a peaceful Middle East.
Instead, we are focused on coordinating an international response through the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have veto power. The crisis in Syria is none of China’s business, and Russia is driven only by the most selfish calculations. The administration’s efforts have combined inaction with diplomatic paralysis. By contrast, when faced with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in the late 1990s, President Clinton simply ignored the Security Council and sought NATO action against Serbian forces.
The Obama administration’s worldview is shaped by a devotion to the judgment of international organizations — the philosophy that dominates left-leaning governments and university faculties throughout the West. That philosophy conditions the legitimacy of military action on the consensus of multinational bodies instead of the intrinsic merits of the case. It is rooted in a belief that, in a more “just” world, a Parliament of Man would decide when the use of force is appropriate. But the principle of “one state, one vote” is anti-democratic when there are no principled standards for membership in international bodies and decolonization has been accompanied by an unfortunate flourishing of undemocratic states.
Under President Jimmy Carter, and even more during the Reagan administration, the Democratic party abandoned decades of (mostly) firm opposition to Communism. Instead, it took the position that tensions with the Soviet Union were mainly the result of American hostility. As a young senator, Joe Biden was an early proponent of this view.
President Obama took a similar approach to our fraught relationship with Russia when he offered it a “reset.” From the start, he has been at pains to make sure the Russians see him as a friend. Attempts to demonstrate his friendliness have led him to disregard the interests of our Eastern European allies in favor of Russian interests, most notably in his administration’s abandonment of missile-defense projects of great importance to Poland and the Czech Republic. In this context, Obama’s promise to Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev that he would be more “flexible” on missile defense after the November election is hardly surprising.
Our Iraqi allies have been cast by the wayside. Obama has not visited Iraq since 2009, and his lack of personal engagement arguably helped get American forces expelled in 2011. The tragedy is that powerful political factions within Iraq had united behind an alliance with the United States, and many Iraqis viewed the U.S. as a guarantor of stability despite their instinctive animosity to occupiers. Those Iraqis had fought alongside our forces to defeat al-Qaeda and the Sadrists; now they are isolated and defenseless, and their influence is waning fast. Obama has let slip through his grasp a crown jewel of America’s strategic assets, earned at a frightful cost in lives: a long-term American troop presence in a democratic Arab country in the heart of the Middle East. During the Cold War, the mere presence of American troops on the periphery of the free world allowed stable institutions of commerce and democratic governance to take root, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and tyranny. But in Iraq, where such institutions are young and failing if they exist at all, we are standing idly by as the country slides into Iran’s sphere of influence.
The administration’s mistreatment of our most dependent and loyal allies has been most obvious in the case of Israel. Let’s take one example among many. Until a settlement of the Arab–Israeli dispute has been negotiated, the U.S. is almost certain to veto any Palestinian-statehood resolution at the U.N. Last year, a U.S. veto of one such resolution (it would have given member-state status to the Palestinian Authority at UNESCO) angered the Arabs and left them suspicious of Obama. To mollify them, America’s ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, publicly condemned Israel’s decision to build housing for both Arabs and Jews in Givat HaMatos, a village on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem.
Predictably, this intervention in Israeli politics failed to mollify the Arabs, but it succeeded in offending the Israelis. The administration sees a big difference between the Israeli government and Israel itself, and viewed its criticism as directed only at the former; but unfortunately the Israelis don’t see that distinction quite so clearly. Although Obama claims that he has “Israel’s back,” few Israelis believe it. According to one recent poll, only 32 percent of Israelis view Obama positively. The U.S. has therefore become largely irrelevant to the peace process that Obama had hoped to influence. We were uniquely positioned to serve as mediator in the conflict only because Israelis trusted us to underwrite the risks of the concessions that they alone were being asked to make under the flawed “land for peace” formula. However laudable his intentions, Obama has thrown that trust away.
In Latin America, the story is much the same. At the request of Bolivia’s socialist leader, Evo Morales, an ally of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, Obama cut funds to pro-democracy groups. He took the side of anti-American factions in the Honduras constitutional crisis, when the pro-American side was clearly in the right as a matter of Honduran constitutional law. He embarrassed Panama and Colombia by holding up free-trade agreements on protectionist grounds. And he has stood by while former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega has cemented his grip on power in Nicaragua.
Across the globe, those who have counted on the United States to defend liberal democracy, free markets, and national sovereignty have found Obama consistently unsupportive. It’s perfectly understandable: In Obama’s worldview those things are a recipe for injustice. Who can be surprised if the administration treats proponents of our values abroad — our most natural and committed allies — with ambivalence or even enmity? And who will feign surprise when those allies refuse to stand up for us?
– Mr. Loyola is a former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.