The Citizen of the World Presidency
In 2007, early in the improbable presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, the young first-term senator began a series of foreign-policy speeches that seemed too general to provide a guide to what he might do if elected. Aside from making it clear he was not George W. Bush and would get out of Iraq, the rest read like liberal boilerplate: “We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology….The conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002….This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place.” In 2008, he visited Berlin and told an enraptured crowd: “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world…the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.”
In Obama’s fifth year as president, it is increasingly clear these vague phrases were not mere rhetoric. They did, in fact, accurately reflect Obama’s thinking about America’s role in the world and foreshadow the goals of the foreign policy he has been implementing and will be pursuing for three more years. Obama’s foreign policy is strangely self-centered, focused on himself and the United States rather than on the conduct and needs of the nations the United States allies with, engages with, or must confront. It is a foreign policy structured not to influence events in Russia or China or Africa or the Middle East but to serve as a bulwark “against the habits” of American activism and global leadership. It was his purpose to change those habits, and to inculcate new habits—ones in which, in every matter of foreign policy except for the pursuit of al-Qaeda, the United States restrains itself.
In the beginning came “engagement.” In his first State of the Union speech in February 2009, Obama told us that “in words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun.” A few days later he delivered a speech about the Iraq war and said again that “we are launching a new era of engagement with the world.” There would now be “comprehensive American engagement across the region.” In his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in September 2009, he repeated the phrase: “We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect….We have sought, in word and deed, a new era of engagement with the world.”
What did the word engagement mean in this context? The message here was that people around the world hated us for our heavy-handedness and our militarism, which were the product not only of George W. Bush’s policies but long-standing patterns dating back to the beginning of the Cold War. This would now change. Our new president, the first to recognize fully the regressive quality of activist American foreign policy, would in the service of this goal be willing to meet even with Iranian leaders, indeed almost any hostile dictator. The days when we snubbed and demonized other nations were over. With Russia and other nations there would now be a “reset”—the term that, along with “engagement” and “global citizenship,” came to represent Obama’s foreign policy in his first year in office.
These terms applied to the world as a whole, but Obama added a special concern with the Muslim world. Here the Bush years had, in his view, brought near-catastrophe, and he was uniquely able to solve the problem. “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed,” he remarked, and “as a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.” In his fifth month in office, he visited Cairo not to address Egypt’s growing problems but to ignore them and address every Muslim in the world: “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect….And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
Astonishingly, he did not say he had equal responsibility when it came to negative stereotypes of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or other world faiths, only Islam. Even more astonishing was his view that American interests were best served addressing Muslims not as Egyptians and Malaysians, or Nigerians and Omanis and Indonesians—as residents of nations with discrete interests and goals that might intersect with those of the United States and make us valuable friends and allies—but as Muslims first and foremost.
This was an innovation. There was nothing new in the notion that a president would “engage” in a different manner from the way his predecessors had. What was new was the idea that the president of the United States would engage directly with the followers of an entire faith tradition. Indeed, it would appear that in his view, this new kind of engagement—with the citizenry of the planet—was going to change everything. Obama told the UN in his first address there: “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009—more than at any point in human history—the interests of nations and peoples are shared.” Presumably this was a reference to his preachment in Berlin in 2008: “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands.”
This global citizenship we all share would, at first glance, seem to reflect a genuine concern with how average men and women and families are living around the world. Such a concern ought to lead to two sets of policies: one to help them overcome political oppression, and one to help them meet the daily challenges of poverty and disease. And here is the second innovative aspect of Obama’s foreign policy: the startling absence of concern on either front.
On the human-rights side, administration policy has been marked by indifference. When the people of Iran flooded the streets to protest the theft of their presidential election in June 2009, President Obama was silent for 11 days. This was an early sign that “engagement” was to be with regimes and rulers, not populations—not even, as it turned out, with Muslim populations, and not even with Muslim populations rising up in protest.
In an even earlier sign, when asked during a visit Mubarak made to Washington in March 2009 about human-rights violations by his regime, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replied: “I had a wonderful time with him this morning. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” This approach never changed: In 2011, when a military regime replaced Mubarak, Clinton visited Cairo and said, “We believe in aid to your military without any conditions, no conditionality.” In 2012, she waived congressional restrictions on aid just as the military regime was putting young American aid workers on trial for the crime of promoting democracy in Egypt.
This was typical. Asked why she was not pressing the Chinese harder on human rights, Secretary Clinton replied that “we pretty much know what they are going to say” and “our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis, and the security crisis.” While the Obama years have been a time of steadily increasing oppression in Russia, the administration has reacted with near silence. In 2009, Obama visited Moscow and told civil-society activists that they had his “commitment” and his “promise” to support their human-rights efforts. But after he met with Putin in 2013, Obama said the two leaders had “a very useful conversation” and “extensive discussions about how we can further deepen our economic and commercial relationships.” “I began by thanking him for his cooperation,” Obama said, and he spoke about “the kind of constructive, cooperative relationship that moves us out of the Cold War mind-set.”
Genuine support for human rights is, apparently, a “Cold War mind-set” that leads to confrontation rather than “engagement” with regimes. It is one of those old habits we need to break. Worse yet is the new habit of “humanitarian intervention,” with which the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations sometimes justified American activism. It is apparently a cause for sadness that 100,000 people have been killed in Syria during Obama’s tenure, in other words, but it would be dangerous as a justification for action. Given the unsettled state of the world, “humanitarian intervention” could lead to another bout of military activity—precisely the kind of foreign policy Barack Obama got himself elected to end.
So does “global citizenship” instead mean people-to-people assistance, avoiding politics and military action to aid the millions facing poverty and disease? Such an approach might well justify engagement with certain regimes we would otherwise seek to isolate, and in any event it would show deep solidarity with fellow human beings whatever their religion, nationality, or politics. But the Obama administration has shown no interest in such an approach. Its maligned predecessor developed vast programs to stop the spread of malaria and AIDS. PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) had spent $18 billion by the time George W. Bush left office, and even in the view of Bush skeptics has saved millions of lives. By contrast, Obama largely ignored Africa during this first term, leading to news stories with terms like “unmistakable sense of disappointment,” “widespread cynicism on the continent,” and “positively neglectful.” If “global citizenship” requires assisting people who are poor or sick, the key post for advancing it in Africa is that of assistant administrator for Africa at the Agency for International Development. Obama left that post vacant for more than three years. Similarly, the post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was vacant for half of the president’s first term—another indication of his interests and priorities.
The pattern, then, is one of considerable indifference to the fate of the poor, the persecuted, and the oppressed. They are allocated their fair share of rhetoric, but their plight does not much impinge on policy. Now, such an approach can theoretically be defended—as a return to realpolitik after the excesses of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” and in the face of America’s economic and fiscal crisis. Hardhearted, perhaps, but realistic: This is the age of limits. Such would be the defense. The problem is that a realpolitik policy would build on American alliances to maintain and magnify American power. It might downplay ideological or ethical matters and marginalize human rights (wrongly, in my view), but it would do so in an effort to secure and advance the American national interest. Is that the Obama approach?
In one area the answer is unambiguously yes, and that is the fight against al-Qaeda terrorism. The Obama administration has vastly expanded the use of armed drones, and concentrated a great deal of diplomatic effort on building and maintaining alliances that share information about terrorists, provide access to get near them, and then strike against them. The president understands the political benefits, of course: He and other officials have made a great deal of political hay out of the killing of Osama bin Laden and like to say that al-Qaeda is on the run. This works as long as there is no mass-casualty attack on the United States attributable to al-Qaeda or a related group. But there is no reason to doubt the sincerity the president and his team bring to this effort. They are hard at work every day protecting Americans from international terror.
But what other aspects of Obama’s policy appear to be dedicated to maximizing American power and national-security interests? There are none.
Start with American military strength, where massive cuts have left us with a Navy of 286 ships—the smallest number since 1917. When Mitt Romney pointed this out during a presidential debate, Obama replied sarcastically: “Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. Because the nature of the military has changed.” This retort was effective in a smart-ass way, but while the cavalry may be a historical relic, the Navy is not, and it is getting smaller. So are the Air Force, Army, and Marines, because their budgets are shrinking. This is not the result of technological improvements, as Obama’s quip suggested. Nor is it the unavoidable effect of deficits. It is a policy choice in a Washington where entitlement spending is more sacrosanct than military spending.
More telling, Obama avoided turning to defense when urging spending on “shovel-ready” projects to stimulate the economy during 2009 and 2010. Due to Iraq and Afghanistan, all the services had logistical needs that would have created tens of thousands of good jobs—building tanks and airplanes and armored personnel carriers and jeeps, and restocking the military’s larder. But that was not the stimulus the administration had in mind. Meanwhile, as conventional strength declines, the administration seeks to reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal as well, entering negotiations with Russia while ignoring persuasive reports of Russian cheating on the 1987 treaty limiting intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles. Nor is the president’s “global zero” campaign, aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons entirely when nuclear weapons represent a qualitative American advantage, likely to strike those who believe foreign policy should be about maximizing American power as a sensible program. Certainly the administration’s efforts to reduce the size of America’s nuclear arsenal send shivers down the spines of the South Koreans and Japanese who depend on American deterrence as they face a rising China.
Practitioners of realpolitik would be seeking to strengthen existing alliances, as the first Bush administration’s foreign-policy team did at the close of the Cold War. That has not been the Obama way. In 2009, the administration left allies in the Czech Republic and Poland high and dry by canceling a ballistic missile defense site in Eastern Europe in an effort to curry favor with Russia. Lech Walesa, the great anti-Communist Polish leader, and others criticized the policy reversal and worried about American efforts to tilt toward Moscow rather than Warsaw and Prague. And those East European politicians who had run risks to defend the American proposal on missile defense in 2007 and 2008 learned a painful lesson about sticking their necks out for Washington. But closer allies have faced the same lack of respect as well. The British learned that the bust of Winston Churchill was removed from the Oval Office as soon as Obama arrived. Then they learned what the new team thought of them and of the so-called special relationship. During the visit of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, a State Department official notoriously said: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”
These may have just been words, but when it came to the Western intervention in Libya in 2011, the British and French learned that the Obama administration’s limited view of allied solidarity posed real-world dangers. British and French leadership finally brought all of NATO (including the Americans, who were “leading from behind”) into the struggle against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, and the United States had certain military assets that the others simply did not possess. These were offered slowly and grudgingly and were then withdrawn as soon as possible. The operation therefore took longer than was predicted or was necessary: At one point the rebels appeared to have considerable momentum and were nearing the capital, Tripoli, but they did not get the backing they needed from the United States. Later, in April 2011, the U.S. withdrew its warplanes, leading to advances by the Gaddafi forces. “Your timing is exquisite,” Senator John McCain told Secretary of Defense Gates at an oversight hearing. (Gates acknowledged the timing was “unfortunate.”)
Then, in 2012, came Mali. Al-Qaeda-linked rebels based in the northern part of that West African nation threatened to take over the entire country. UN plans (supported by the United States) would have trained and positioned African troops to combat them. But that would happen so slowly, if it really happened at all, that these would-be troops would present no real obstacle to the terrorist victory. France acted, sending in troops and asking for American help in the form of refueling the planes they were using to ferry in soldiers and police the skies. The White House first balked at supplying the requested tankers, then agreed to supply a few cargo planes (and asked the French to reimburse the costs). In the end, the United States did more, because the struggle was placed in the “counter-terror, fighting al-Qaeda” category rather than that of mere allied solidarity (or worse yet, the category of helping the French keep order in Africa).
This kind of drama has been playing out in Syria as well. Here, both the strategic and humanitarian arguments for intervention are powerful. There are now well over 100,000 dead and more than a million refugees, in addition to several million internally displaced persons. The burdens on Turkey and especially Jordan to cope with the refugees are growing. The Assad regime has survived largely due to the dispatch of expeditionary forces by Iran and Hezbollah, who are leading the fight against the rebels. President Obama said more than two years ago that Assad must go and called Assad’s use of chemical weapons a “red line,” but the administration has done next to nothing to turn that threat into reality. When justifying his decision to join the fight in Libya, Obama said in 2011 that “when innocent people are being brutalized, when someone like Gaddafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region, and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives, then it’s in our national interest to act.” Well, in Syria, a bloodbath is a reality rather than a threat, and the Iranian and Hezbollah intervention truly has destabilized an entire region. But month after month, as the world watched, Obama took no action beyond nonlethal aid to the rebels. Finally the administration announced in June that it would provide some military aid, but its words were not followed by deeds for several months. Meanwhile, Sunni jihadis from around the world have been gathering in Syria to fight the regime, creating a new threat of their own—especially for the post-conflict period. Battle-trained, armed, and experienced, would these jihadis stay in Syria? Or would they leave to fight in Shia-led Iraq, against Hezbollah in Lebanon, or against Israel in the Golan Heights? Perhaps 1,000 or 1,500 of them are European-born, and might return to Amsterdam or London or Madrid and bring additional violence with them.
So there are obvious realpolitik arguments for intervention in Syria, or at the very least against the remarkable passivity of the Obama administration there. Among those arguments is the fact that the president has taken clear sides against Assad and has laid down his chemical-weapons red line. His word, and American credibility, are at stake in large measure because he chose to intervene rhetorically. The impression left with our allies—Israeli and Arab and European alike—is that American policy reflects less a careful weighing of the arguments for and against action than a simple desire, visible to them in Mali and Libya, to stay out of any military engagement that goes beyond drone strikes.
Watching the administration in Syria, what conclusion must the rulers of Iran reach about their own nuclear-weapons program? Must they really abandon it? Thus far they have plowed ahead steadily. As the Economist, a journal far closer to the realpolitik view than to neoconservative positions, stated last summer: “Iran has installed more than 9,000 new centrifuges in less than two years, more than doubling its enrichment capability….Thanks to heavy investment in nuclear capacity by the mullahs…Iran will soon be able to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium in a matter of weeks.” The editors’ conclusion is that “the balance of power between Iran and the rest of the world has been shifting in Iran’s favour” due to its nuclear progress and to its presence in Syria, where they urge Western intervention: “It is not in the West’s interests that a state that sponsors terrorism and rejects Israel’s right to exist should become the regional hegemon.” But to Obama, a struggle against Iranian and Hezbollah soldiers seems like a morass to stay out of at all costs. It is more important that we avoid being a “regional hegemon” than that we prevent Iran from taking that role.
As for Israel, the administration has of course followed a twisting path since the days of Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009. On that trip he not only skipped visiting Israel but showed no real understanding of its history or sympathy with its situation. Military and intelligence cooperation has been excellent, but diplomatic confrontations were frequent, including clear evidence of Obama’s distaste for Prime Minister Netanyahu (and vice versa). The diplomatic low point came in early 2011, when then UN ambassador Susan Rice was forced by the White House to veto a resolution criticizing Israeli settlements. She did as instructed, but her explanation of her vote on behalf of the United States could not have been more hostile: “We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity [which] has corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region…violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.”
Relations were patched up when Obama visited Israel in 2013, where among other things he acknowledged the country’s biblical (rather than Holocaust) roots and reiterated in tougher terms than ever before that Iran could not be permitted to have a nuclear weapon. Whether the Israelis credit that line and whether the ayatollahs do as well remain the greatest questions facing Obama’s second-term foreign policy. After Libya and Mali and Syria, after the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult to believe.
The overall impression in the Middle East is that America is pulling away. That Economist editorial ended with a plea: “When Persian power is on the rise, it is not the time to back away from the Middle East.” This is an expression of deep anxiety, politely phrased in London but spoken with less restraint in Jerusalem and nearly every Arab capital. In fact, the very same words are often heard because so many Arab states—from Jordan and Morocco to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—have, like Israel, tied their security to our willpower and ability to act. The prevailing mood is trepidation. The Middle Easterners are keen students of power, and they realize that the administration’s so-called “pivot to Asia”—the supposed refocusing of American foreign policy away from the Middle East and onto the Far East instead—is a weak excuse: They see that a diminishing of the American position in their region cannot possibly help build respect for American strength in and around China. They know that no one, from Khamenei to Assad to Putin to Chavez, has ever seemed to fear Barack Obama; no one has been deterred from crossing him. They watch carefully the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, unsurprised by the fact that the Americans are ending the wars unilaterally but studying the terms. The administration made so little effort to work out a way to keep a force in Iraq (through a status-of-forces agreement) that the fair conclusion is total withdrawal was its preferred outcome. Same for Afghanistan. In June the administration floated a new “zero option” policy for Afghanistan: Withdraw every single American soldier next year despite any previous pledges of support to the Afghan government. Ryan Crocker, who was President Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan, described the new plan this way: “If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.” The best description of Obama policy these days seems to be “We want out.”
A former Obama administration official, Vali Nasr (now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), stated all of this most strongly in his book about the administration he served, which he entitled The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. There, Nasr described America as “dragged by Europeans into ending butchery in Libya, abandoning Afghanistan to an uncertain future, [and] resisting a leadership role in ending the massacre of civilians in Syria….Gone is the exuberant American desire to lead the world. In its place there is the image of a superpower tired of the world and in retreat.”
So the Obama administration is pursuing neither an idealistic foreign policy based on altruistic considerations of “world citizenship,” nor a realpolitik policy designed to maximize American power and influence in an age of limits through careful assertions of power and the strengthening and utilization of alliances. What foreign policy is it pursuing, then?
Nasr has a theory about Obama: “His policies’ principal aim is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.” This is a damning indictment, and it is an unfair one. It is true that public opinion wanted the American role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to end and, no doubt with those long and costly conflicts in mind, opposes a deeper role in Syria. But public opinion does not explain the many other stances the Obama administration has taken, from the very weak human-rights policy and the effort to reduce the American nuclear arsenal to the tension with Israel and the lack of support for European allies. The argument that Obama has no real foreign-policy goals and simply bows to the wind does not explain his actions as president. What does?
There are two aspects to Obama’s policy. As I’ve said, the first is the protection of the country against an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist attack. Whether one believes this focus is motivated entirely by patriotism or is also the product of a political calculation and fear of public opinion is immaterial: The administration is working tirelessly, and employing considerable violence, to attack al-Qaeda and disrupt its plans. In pursuit of its aims it has bravely ignored the Democratic base, which dislikes drones and electronic surveillance in general. For four and a half years, this policy has been successful, and there is every reason to believe it will be carried forward with equal dedication.
The limits of this approach, however, are significant. As Thomas Donnelly has written, “Obama was construing Bush’s ‘war on terror’ in the narrowest possible sense: The war was a reaction to the attacks of 9/11, properly focused on Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership cadre, and not on the al-Qaeda network and certainly not on the overall Middle East balance of power.” Thus the initial reluctance to help the French in Mali despite the nature of the terrorist groups there, and the passivity as jihadis gathered in Syria. Thus the refusal to conduct anything like ideological warfare against Islamist extremism, substituting instead the themes of the Cairo speech. There, Obama said, “America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.” Absent in this phrase are the nonviolent Islamic extremists, who are perhaps better described as the not-yet-violent Islamic extremists. Tony Blair’s government tried the same approach and it failed, for the British found that the key division was not between the violent and the not-yet-violent extremists, but instead between extremists and those who rejected extremism and hatred and were willing to fight it. The struggle against Islamic extremism is a battle of ideas as well as a military and police activity, and it cannot be won if the only weapon employed is the drone strike. So one may fairly say that fighting terrorist attacks is part of Obama’s policy, but fighting Islamic extremism is not.
The second aspect of Obama’s foreign policy is more central and more significant. It is the president’s effort to kill those old “habits” of American leadership, what Nasr so well describes as “the exuberant American desire to lead the world.” It is not enough to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan; the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan must also be learned so that those mistakes are never repeated. And the lesson Obama has learned, and wishes to teach to others, is that the exercise of American power, with the sole exception of direct strikes on al-Qaeda terrorists, should be avoided for practical and moral reasons.
This, I believe, is what the president was really talking about when he said, in Berlin: “We are not only citizens of America or Germany. We are also citizens of the world. And our fates and fortunes are linked like never before.” He wants us to see that “exuberant desire” as outmoded at best, and dangerous, and morally wrong.
In 2008, Obama said: “One of the things I intend to do as president is restore America’s standing in the world. We are less respected now than we were eight years ago or even four years ago.” Obama is not blind; he can see that respect for us has fallen still further. He can see that engagement with dictatorial regimes such as Iran and Syria has failed. Relations with Russia were not “reset” and have grown worse. There has been no improvement with China, and absolutely nothing substantial came out of his meeting with the new Chinese premier in June of this year. As for Iran, Obama said in 2008 that “ultimately the measure of any effort is whether it leads to a change in Iranian behavior.” By that standard—with Iran closer than ever to a nuclear weapon and an Iranian expeditionary force in Syria—Obama’s Iran policy is disastrous. America’s allies, in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, see a superpower that is weaker—and that continues the policies that will make it weaker still.
Even some of Obama’s highest appointees came to see that things were not going well and demanded bolder American action. There are press reports that in the summer of 2012, Hillary Clinton, with the support of then Secretary of Defense Gates, urged a far more active (covert) effort to arm the rebels against Assad. In 2013, Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, argued in cabinet-level secret meetings for American air strikes at Assad’s airplanes and air bases, to shift the balance toward the Syrian rebels and assert American power. Clinton and Gates lost; Kerry lost; policy was unchanged; tens of thousands more Syrians died and hundreds of thousands more fled their homes; and thousands more jihadis arrived in Syria. With details like these in mind, one can say that the most committed, ideological, and intransigent official in the administration is clearly Barack Obama.
People like the Ayatollah Khamenei or Vladimir Putin are, in the Obama view, retrogressive: They see power, defined in a very old-fashioned manner, as the means to achieve their goals. For Obama, national power is an improper goal. In 2013, he returned to Berlin and this time said about people striving for freedom—he named Israelis, Palestinians, Burmese, and Afghans—that “they too, in their own way, are citizens of Berlin.” As Matthew Continetti wrote in the Washington Free Beacon: “If everyone is a citizen of Berlin, then the concept of ‘citizen,’ which implies rootedness, partiality, particularity, has no meaning. If we are citizens of everywhere, we are also citizens of nowhere.”
Just as the British were told they were not special, so we Americans must learn that we are not special, either—except perhaps that we are more dangerous because we are more powerful. Thus we require more strenuous efforts from our leaders to hold us back, as Obama is doing. American leadership is a dangerous narcotic, one that can make us feel good for a while but will in the end bring tragedy to us and to many others around the world. Obama’s task is to explain this to us and, using the powers of office, keep us away from this drug for eight years and diminish our capacity to use it when he is gone.
This also explains the treatment of American allies such as Britain, France, and Israel. For in this “global-citizen” view, what are allies except people who are likely to get you into trouble? You do not plan to intervene anywhere, so you will not need to call on them. The danger is that they will call upon you, as happened in Mali and Libya, and now Syria, and perhaps tomorrow Iran. Historically, America’s closest allies were often backward in their domestic and foreign policies, and in this view on the “wrong side of history.” What better proof of this is there, for Obama and those who see the world as he does, than those nations’ reliance on America and American power, and their role throughout the Cold War as cat’s-paws for Washington?
The Obama administration appears to view allies not as nations whose young people may someday bravely bear arms alongside ours, in the image of World War II and Korea, but as nations likely to agree to house secret CIA prisons. There are in this view just three sorts of nations: a few bad actors; many dependents who may get you into trouble, and were formerly called allies; and then of course the global citizens, who have risen above narrow nationalist goals.
Some of this is a familiar critique from the left, which rose to influence in the 1960s and came into the White House with Jimmy Carter. But to give the 39th president his due, the Carter Doctrine stated that we would never permit an outside power to gain control of the Persian Gulf. And Carter was capable of acknowledging error: In 1979, he said the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had “made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.” In the Obama administration, no action by a foreign power has elicited any such statement of a change in perspective or approach. The president appears to hold, unchanged, the views with which he arrived in office—and for that matter with which he arrived in the Senate and indeed arrived at Columbia University in 1980 (or at least with which he left Columbia upon his graduation).
Ronald Reagan said of Jimmy Carter that his administration “lives in the world of make-believe…where mistakes, even very big ones, have no consequence.” Carter came to understand (briefly, in any event) that his opinion of the Soviets had been a great mistake with whose consequences he had to deal. But is there anything that appears to Obama to be a mistake? Is the growing difficulty of exercising American power, is the waning of American influence, the product of mistake—or the goal of policy? Reagan went on in that 1980 speech to say the following:
Disasters are overtaking our nation without any real response from the White House. Who does not feel a growing sense of unease as our allies, facing repeated instances of an amateurish and confused administration, reluctantly conclude that America is unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations as leader of the free world? Who does not feel rising alarm when the question in any discussion of foreign policy is no longer “Should we do something,” but “Do we have the capacity to do anything?”
Today, China takes risky measures in Asian seas to show its neighbors who is boss in that region and builds its military power even as ours is reduced. Putin pressures nations in his orbit and brings a new age of KGB-style oppression to Russia. Iran moves steadily closer to a nuclear weapon in defiance of a hundred UN and IAEA resolutions and Obama speeches, and it is now bold enough to send troops to fight in Syria to protect its hold there on the shores of the Mediterranean and its alliance with the terrorist group Hezbollah. Our Arab allies in the Gulf see an America unwilling to act to protect its interests and theirs, and wonder if a hegemonic Iran will really displace the United States as the region’s dominant power. The wave of democratization in Latin America is now receding, and dictators rule in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Cuba violates UN sanctions to do military trade with North Korea—and North Korea makes fools of the United States by taking our aid and improving its nuclear weapons and missiles. The world’s bright spots in these last four years—yes, things seem more stable and more democratic in Burma and Senegal—throw a mocking light on the rest.
And while this is happening, from Washington come not cries of alarm but the self-satisfaction of an administration that believes we are moving closer each year to our proper place in the “international community.”
Who does not feel a growing sense of unease, then, and who does not feel rising alarm? The answer may be the president who is the author of these policies, for they are doing just what they were meant to do. If not reversed, they will produce an America that is a “citizen of the world” like all the others, shorn of the ability to lead and believing that leadership means little more than hubris and risk. For Barack Obama, this will mean his foreign-policy ideas have won the day.