On April 23, 2007, then-Senator and future presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said this:
Until we change our approach in Iraq, it will be increasingly difficult to refocus our efforts on the challenges in the wider region – on the conflict in the Middle East, where Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain; on Iran, which has been strengthened by the war in Iraq; and on Afghanistan, where more American forces are needed to battle al Qaeda, track down Osama bin Laden, and stop that country from backsliding toward instability… Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?
Just yesterday the Obama administration admitted what our allies have long said – that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. At least 80,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, there are almost 1.5 million refugees, and the number of internally displaced persons has rise to more than four million. (Tony Blair discusses Syria in this op-ed.) Moreover, as the Washington Post reports
As fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement wage the battles that are helping Syria’s regime survive, their chief sponsor, Iran, is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become… after the Assad regime’s capture of the small but strategic town of Qusair last week — a battle in which the Iranian-backed Shiite militia played a pivotal role — Iran’s supporters and foes alike are mulling a new reality: that the regional balance of power appears to be tilting in favor of Tehran, with potentially profound implications for a Middle East still grappling with the upheaval wrought by the Arab Spring revolts.
That’s not all.
The Syrian civil war is badly destabilizing our most reliable Arab ally, Jordan. Lebanon is increasingly fragile. In Egypt and across North Africa the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power. Since Mr. Obama withdrew American forces in Iraq, sectarian violence has markedly increased there, with the hard-won gains from the Bush administration’s surge being washed away. The war in Afghanistan is going poorly, while relations with the Karzai regime are quite bad, limiting American leverage in that nation (our much-trumped retreat of forces from Afghanistan have of course limited our leverage as well). Turkey is struggling to contain a political crisis that has threatened the nation’s economy and paralyzed the government. There are no prospects for genuine peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Libyan people are weary of two years of militia violence that has kept the country in chaos and stalled reform, with the government weak and unstable. And al Qaeda is ascendant in North Africa.
I could go on, but you get the picture.
My point in running through this parade of horribles isn’t to blame President Obama for every one of them. That would be silly. But it would be just as silly to pretend that Mr. Obama isn’t responsible for much, and in some cases most, of the multiplying failures we’re seeing sweep the world.
This much is clear: The president’s policies have, by almost every objective measure, failed. And they have failed by his own standards, his own promises, and his own words. What he said would happen has not; and the things he complained about have gotten worse. His incompetence in international affairs is staggering; and in some of these circumstances it will take years, in some cases decades, and in some cases generations to undo the damage, if we ever do.
What Barack Obama must know, at least in his quiet, private moments, is that conducting foreign policy turned out to be a lot harder than critiquing someone else’s foreign policy. That words aren’t substitutes for actions. That preening arrogance and empty threats don’t actually shape events on the ground. And that there is a high human cost to ineptitude.
After eight years the damage of the Obama legacy will be extraordinary. But the damage may be most acute in foreign policy, where events are continuing to spin out of control and our commander-in-chief doesn’t have any idea how to stop it.
This is not what America’s “moment to lead” and its “new beginning” was supposed to look like.