Since 2009, the world has been trying to make sense of America’s foreign and national security policies under Barack Obama. Allies and enemies, historians and scholars, the president’s critics and his supporters—all have struggled to define, or even discern, an Obama Doctrine. So last week, the man optimally positioned to elucidate the president’s vision sought to provide some clarity.
In a rambling, defensive, and disjointed commencement speech at West Point, the president attempted retroactively to impose a framework on his ad hoc and often incoherent foreign policy. He sought to convince his audience—and the world—that he has a vision for America’s role and that it’s working. What we’re seeing today, he argued, is all part of the plan.
That’s a tough sell. Our allies are confused and dispirited, our enemies are unquestionably emboldened. The Russian reset failed. The Asia pivot never happened. The Middle East peace process collapsed. The Syrian leader once embraced as a “reformer” has slaughtered more than 150,000 of his own people. Libya is a mess. Iraq is regressing. Obama’s own top intelligence officials acknowledge that al Qaeda is amassing territory and gaining strength.
Rather than defend or explain these policy failures, the president chose instead to attack critics, real and imaginary. He challenged “critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak,” though no one actually thinks this. He rejected as “naïve and unsustainable” any “strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks” despite the fact that there are no advocates for such a strategy.
When the president wasn’t inventing fantasy arguments of nonexistent critics, he was recasting setbacks and failures as geopolitical triumphs. Obama argued that his willingness to work with international institutions was a sign of American strength and offered two examples to demonstrate the “effectiveness of multilateralism.”
One example was premature and optimistic, the other delusional. Because of his leadership on Iran, Obama argued, “we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement.” Even if Obama’s optimism is justified, and he had to admit that success is far from certain, what will such an agreement mean to a regime that routinely flouts international obligations and violates multilateral agreements? Beyond that, Iran remains the foremost state sponsor of terror. According to Obama’s State Department, the Iranian regime continues to harbor senior al Qaeda leaders and, “since 2012, the United States has also seen a resurgence of activity by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and Tehran’s ally Hizballah.”
And his other example, Ukraine? The Obama administration’s “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks,” he argued, leaving Russia “isolated.” Moreover, “standing with our allies on behalf of international order working with international institutions has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without us firing a shot.”
In the real world, a not-so-isolated Russia has signed a landmark energy deal with China worth some $400 billion, and Russia’s European trade partners are balking at serious sanctions on the Russian economy. In Ukraine, with the possibility of a Russia-provoked civil war increasing every day, all of Obama’s “standing” and “mobilizing” has meant little to the pro-Russian militias roaming the streets of Donetsk or the Ukrainian Army soldiers who have been killed trying to repel Russian invaders. And Ukrainians in Crimea might challenge Obama’s claim that they’re free to choose their own future.
If this is foreign policy effectiveness, the world would be better off with less of it.
Perhaps nothing made the confusion of Obama’s foreign policy more obvious than the president’s brief discussion of Syria. Before the speech, White House aides told reporters that the president would make news by announcing increased lethal aid to the good guys in the Syrian opposition. Obama didn’t do that. Instead, he promised aid to Syria’s neighbors and announced only that he would “work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.”
In a White House conference call after the speech, reporters pressed a senior Obama administration official to explain what, exactly, “ramping up support” might mean. The administration, this official disclosed, would seek to “have a conversation . . . with Congress” and would be “discussing with Congress” the options available. Beyond that: “We do want to have this discussion with Congress” and “this is something we have to work with Congress on going forward” and we “will discuss our overseas contingency funding with Congress in the coming weeks” and “there needs to be dialogue and coordination between the administration and Congress” and “we want to explore whether we can come to some understanding with Congress about the best way to maximize our resources and get additional support to the Syrian people.” And on it went.
Work with Congress? What explains this sudden respect for the legislative branch? This is the same president who has repeatedly declared his willingness to circumvent Congress or ignore it altogether. “Congress is tough right now, but that’s not going to stop me,” he boasted last summer. “We’re going to do everything we can, wherever we can, with or without Congress, to make things happen.” Obama has made good on this promise—on immigration, climate change, welfare reform, health care. When Obama intervened militarily in Libya, administration lawyers prepared a lengthy justification for his decision to bypass Congress. The United States scrambled to drop bombs on regime targets to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from killing hundreds of his countrymen—and the president ordered those attacks without approval from Congress.
But in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered scores of thousands and shows no signs of slowing down? That’s different. In late August 2013, after Assad’s repeated breach of Obama’s red line on chemical weapons, the president and his top advisers prepared the country for military retaliation. But at the last second, Obama decided to seek from Congress authorization he knew he wouldn’t get. Why? He needed an alibi for his own weakness and vacillation.
The ability to work well with others—with Congress, with allies, with international institutions—can be a hallmark of an effective leader, confident in his ability to build coalitions for joint action. You might say that it can be a force-multiplier for a strong president. For Obama, who is not a strong leader, it is something else entirely: an excuse-multiplier, a way to spread the responsibility and blame for his own failures.
This isn’t new American leadership. It’s old-fashioned evasion of responsibility.