Moments of clarity often come when you least expect them. In a speech to contributors last week in Seattle, Barack Obama made the case that his presidency has made America better. In most respects, it was precisely the kind of political pablum you’d expect from a president who seems more concerned with legacy-polishing than governing. He ticked off his accomplishments, a list that was equal parts premature celebration (deficit reduction), hyperbole (Obamacare), and borrowed glory (rising college attendance, a strong stock market, increased energy production).
Even if few in this fawning crowd were going to question him, circumstances required the president to acknowledge the growing tumult around the world. Despite all of this success, he conceded, there are some “big challenges overseas” that have some people anxious.
What are these big challenges and why are we facing them? It’s worth quoting the entire passage:
I am very proud that we have ended one war, and by the end of this year we will have ended both wars that I inherited before I came into office. (Applause.) But whether people see what’s happening in Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression towards its neighbors in the manner in which it’s financing and arming separatists; to what’s happened in Syria—the devastation that Assad has wrought on his own people; to the failure in Iraq for Sunni and Shia and Kurd to compromise—although we’re trying to see if we can put together a government that actually can function; to ongoing terrorist threats; to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. Part of people’s concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people.
These are remarkable words from an American president. They suggest that Obama either doesn’t appreciate the causal relationship between his policies and the current crises—or doesn’t care. He is proud that he has brought about the “end” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he seems not to understand that the unrest he goes on to describe is their direct result: How those wars ended shapes how others perceive the United States and its role in the world.
In Iraq, the president was willing to sacrifice the hard-won gains of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in the pursuit of his overriding objective—getting out. The United States hadn’t created a stable and peaceful Iraq when the president was sworn in on January 20, 2009. But we had largely defeated our enemies there, and even opponents of the war acknowledged the very real prospect of a relatively secure, democratic Iraq. We lost Iraq by choice.
Afghanistan might be worse. In the early days of the administration, the president and his team described the outcome of that war as crucial to U.S. national security. The goals of U.S. military and diplomatic efforts there—eliminating safe haven for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and reversing the momentum of the Taliban—were essential to keeping Americans safe here at home. But Obama long ago made clear that he was more interested in ending the war than in winning it. In his December 1, 2009, speech at West Point, the president announced the troop surge and the withdrawal in the same breath. Today, U.S. troops are coming home, U.S. objectives remain unfulfilled, and President Obama dismissively refers to Afghanistan as just one of the wars he “inherited.”
It’s not just the wars. With remarkable consistency, Obama has demonstrated that he is unwilling to accept the responsibilities that come with being the world’s only superpower. We said little as the Iranian regime put down a democratic revolution in 2009, for fear of accusations of “meddling.” We watched as Assad began to kill his citizens by the thousand, calling plaintively for restraint. When the Russian military rolled into Crimea in an audacious land-grab, we announced our disapproval and pushed for sanctions that we knew—that everyone knew—would have little effect beyond allowing us to say we pushed for sanctions.
In Obama’s telling, the chaos Americans see on their television screens every night—more than 150,000 slaughtered in Syria, a terrorist army taking over major cities in Iraq, dozens of rockets daily targeting citizens of Israel, nearly 300 innocent travelers dead after a surface-to-air missile downs a passenger plane, and continued Russian aggression—is just part of a natural evolution. In the old world order, the United States played a dominant role. In the new one, we will not. With a rhetorical shrug of his shoulders, Obama says that these things may be unpleasant, but better days are ahead—a new order based on a “different set of principles” with “economies that work for all people” and a “sense of common humanity.”
These views are a radical departure from decades of bipartisan U.S. national security and foreign policy, and they can’t be dismissed as just the careless ramblings of a president who has checked out. He’s said much the same thing before. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2009, Obama declared: “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.”
This is naïve and dangerous. There are serious consequences to the United States relinquishing power and influence. We’re living them—and so are people in the rest of the world.