Barack Obama’s foreign policy is in shambles. He had a dream, expressed in Cairo, of “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” of “a world where extremists no longer threaten our people.” So he got out of Iraq and failed to follow through in Libya, seeing no need for American boots on the ground in such a brave new world. He wanted to reset relations with Russia, expecting reciprocal behavior from Vladimir Putin. He indulged the hope that talking about a pivot to Asia would make it so. He cut defense, believing that we could afford to have less because we would need to do less in a world in which “the tide of war is receding.”
It seemed for a while it might work. His mantra, “Don’t do stupid stuff,” got him through his first term. But ultimately, “Don’t do stupid stuff” wasn’t enough in the face of Assad, and ISIL, and Putin. It turned out that “Don’t do stupid stuff” was in fact kind of stupid, because in the real world it meant a foreign policy of weakness and passivity.
On the occasion of his second inauguration a year and a half ago, next to a photo of a visionary Barack Obama gazing into the future, Newsweek heralded “The Second Coming.” Obama’s second term has instead resembled Yeats’s “Second Coming”:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The tide of war isn’t receding. Instead, the “blood-dimmed tide” has been rising. Innocents are drowning. The dream has died.
And so Barack Obama is going through the stages of grief. He’s been in denial: There’s nothing we could have done about the slaughter in Syria, and ISIL is just the junior varsity of terrorists. He’s indulged in anger: If you suggest that we might take action against thugs, terrorists, or tyrants, you’re a warmonger. He’s tried bargaining: Perhaps the gods will accept a few airstrikes as sufficient to stem the tide of chaos. He’s sunk into depression: What else accounts for the manic desire to get out to the golf course and away from the course of events in the real world?
But isn’t it time for Obama to get beyond denial, and anger, and bargaining, and depression? Isn’t it time for acceptance, and then action? Barack Obama is president. He’ll be president for the next two and a half years. He needs to come to grips with reality.
The country is coming to grips with reality. The Los Angeles Times reported on a recent survey by the Pew Research Center: “Public support for a more active U.S. foreign policy has grown sharply since last year as Americans see the world becoming more dangerous.” In November, Pew had found that those who wanted the United States to be less involved in the world outnumbered those who wanted the United States to do more by a lopsided margin of 51-17 percent. Over the past six months, the movement has been dramatic: Now the two groups are about evenly divided. And two-thirds of Americans now say the world has grown more dangerous in the last several years.
The Republican party is coming to grips with reality. The differences among serious Republicans are differences in kinds and degrees of hawkishness. Rand Paul is floundering. The “libertarian moment” in foreign policy ended just as the mainstream media were proclaiming it—though, as Richard Epstein has pointed out, it’s unfair to call Rand Paul’s isolationism libertarian, since serious libertarians believe in the vigorous defense of liberty.
And some in the president’s own administration seem to be coming to grips with reality. Watching Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry this past week, we had two thoughts: First, what a pathetic team the president has surrounded himself with for his second term. But also, even this team is finally getting to acceptance, finally recognizing the perils of the world they now face. The world we now face.
The one person who now stands in the way of beginning to move towards a reality-based foreign policy is the man responsible for American foreign policy, the president of the United States. He’s the one we’re waiting for.