The Magazine

Feebleness in the Executive

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Sometimes politics is just “one damned thing after another.” But sometimes not. Sometimes those damned things constitute a trend and form a pattern. So it is today, with President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

* Our defense capabilities are being slashed. As the editors of the Washington Post pointed out two weeks ago, funding for the Pentagon “is on track to fall tens of billions short of what it needs to fulfill the strategic mission that President Obama has articulated for national defense.” The Post noted that “Mr. Obama told congressional Democrats that the Pentagon should get no more attention than many other areas of the budget also subject to the punishing automatic spending cuts known as sequestration,” and commented, “That can’t be the final answer from the commander in chief.” But it is. The Post further remarked, “Mr. Obama ultimately can’t act as though the Defense Department’s sequester cuts are the equivalent in consequence to every other item in the budget.” But he can and he does.

* President Obama said, two years and a hundred thousand deaths ago, that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must go. He hasn’t gone. President Obama said a year ago that if Assad crossed certain red lines there would be “enormous consequences.” There have been no consequences.

* Speaking in Berlin in July 2008, candidate Barack Obama affirmed his commitment to the mission in Afghanistan. “[W]e must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan. .  .  . I recognize the enormous difficulties in Afghanistan. But my country and yours have a stake in seeing that NATO’s first mission beyond Europe’s borders is a success. For the people of Afghanistan, and for our shared security, the work must be done. America cannot do this alone. The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation. We have too much at stake to turn back now.” We are now turning back. Indeed, President Obama undercut his own surge by announcing our intention to turn back, even as he sent tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines into the fight.

* Also in Berlin, candidate Obama proclaimed that, “despite past differences, this is the moment when the world should support the millions of Iraqis who seek to rebuild their lives, even as we pass responsibility to the Iraqi government and finally bring this war to a close.” In fact, the Bush administration effectively brought the war to a close with the success of the surge Senator Obama opposed. And by failing to secure an agreement to leave a residual force in Iraq, President Obama has allowed civil war to resume there and Al Qaeda in Iraq to come back to life.

* President Obama said last year that al Qaeda is on the run. It’s not. It’s on the move. Any perceptive leader or sentient resident of the Middle East, watching last week as American embassies closed throughout the region, would judge that it’s the United States that’s on the run. Daniel Pipes spoke the harsh truth: As an American, one can’t help but feel “this preemptive cringing unworthy of a great country, even humiliating.”

* President Obama has pursued a “reset” with Russia since he took office. For four and a half years, his repeated petitions have been answered by repeated injuries. Vladimir Putin has been conspicuously deaf to Barack Obama’s entreaties. The president’s response? To cancel a planned bilateral meeting with Putin. Putin’s response? A shrug of the shoulders.

* President Obama has said repeatedly that it is unacceptable for the Iranian regime to acquire nuclear weapons. It is increasingly clear that if serious action is taken to prevent this outcome, it won’t be by the United States under the Obama administration.

As Alexander Hamilton put it in a different context, “There can be no need, however, to multiply arguments or examples on this head.” Or maybe it’s not so different a context. Hamilton continues in Federalist 70, “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”

President Obama’s feeble execution of our foreign policy is made no better by the fact that it is based on bad theories: the limits of American power, the receding tide of war, the virtues of leading from behind. In fact, his attachment to his theories makes it harder for him to adjust to reality and correct course. 

Decline, Charles Krauthammer wrote in these pages almost four years ago, is a choice. President Obama has made that choice. We need to resist it for the next three and a half years. We need to reverse it on January 20, 2017.

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