Commentary Magazine


Topic: foreign policy

Has Rand Paul’s Moment Passed?

This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

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This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

Paul scored a public relations coup by getting NBC to send a camera crew and reporter to Guatemala to observe him performing free eye surgeries. This kind of publicity is priceless as was the opportunity to draw attention to the senator’s grandstanding on the border crisis while in Central America. He also got the chance to lambaste the government’s sending of heavy weaponry to local police departments that was highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri. But the headline of the segment was his boast that the American public now agrees more with him about foreign policy than mainstream Republicans or even Democrats like Hillary Clinton who rightly say that what’s happening in Iraq is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to act in Syria before groups like ISIS had the chance to get going:

I think the American public is coming more and more to where I am, and that those– people, like Hillary Clinton, who, she fought her own war, Hillary’s War, you know, people are gonna find that, and I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, “You know what, we are tired of war. We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”

If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen.

In other words, Paul believes that Americans are so war weary from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are incapable of drawing conclusions from recent events. He’s not alone in thinking that. As Chris Cillizza noted in the Washington Post, a raft of polls taken earlier in the year all support the notion that Americans want a less aggressive foreign policy and are opposed to any further involvement in Middle East conflicts, like the potential wars that a “hawk” like Clinton might get the U.S. into.

Cillizza notes that these attitudes are far less popular among Democrats than Republicans, who, on the whole, remain faithful to their party’s traditional posture that deplores a more “narrow role in world affairs.” But, as Cillizza says, just because the GOP has been the standard bearer for a strong America in the recent past and Democrats the party of retreat, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

But, as we have noted here before, Paul’s problem is that the Obama administration’s disastrous mistakes abroad have made it far less safe to assume that fears about terrorism and the decline of U.S. influence will no longer dictate attitudes about foreign affairs. While Clinton will, at least in theory, stand to benefit from being seen as someone who can implement a rational course correction from Obama’s path (so long as, that is, voters forget that she was his secretary of state for four years), Paul is actually offering an even more extreme version of Obama’s foreign-policy vision that has left the world a chaotic mess.

The crises in the Middle East in which Obama’s follies have played a not insignificant role in exacerbating conflicts in Gaza and Iraq and with the Russian assault on Ukraine proceeding may be just the start. Barring an unlikely complete transformation of the Obama administration over the course of the next two years, the odds are that America’s foreign-policy woes will grow rather than recede. That will make it harder to sell Republican primary voters, let alone the rest of the country, on Paul’s brand of isolationism. The unique moment in history in which an opening for a Republican who was actually to the left of Obama on foreign affairs may have already come to an end.

Nor, as I wrote here last week when discussing Paul’s efforts to present himself as a friend of Israel despite opposing aid to the embattled Jewish state, do polls give Republicans much reason to believe that there will be, as the senator says, a surge of young Democratic voters coming over to their side if Paul is the GOP candidate.

But mainstream Republicans who have observed the way the murder of James Foley and the general feeling of crisis have affected the public mood should not be too confident about Paul’s inability to win the nomination in 2016. As his clever stage management of the trip to Guatemala as well as past coups such as his drone filibuster in 2013 proved, the Kentucky senator is a formidable politician. His willingness to reach out to groups that have little reason to back him such as blacks, Hispanics, and supporters of Israel does more than show his ambition to expand the base of extremist libertarians. It illustrates a political vision that seeks to establish him as a genuine front-runner and plausible option for president.

It is far too early to project how this will play out in 2016. But the point here is that Paul’s ability to generate positive press from even the liberal mainstream media just at the moment when his views about the world are being discredited by events ought to scare his potential opponents. The follies of the Obama presidency may make it safe for conservatives to espouse their traditional support for a strong foreign policy in 2016 in a way that was harder to do in 2012. Yet anyone in the GOP who underestimates Rand Paul’s sheer political talent will be making a big mistake.

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Obama’s Hubris is His Undoing

Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

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Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

As our Pete Wehner wrote earlier today, the president’s reactions to what even Chuck Hagel, his less-than-brilliant secretary of defense, has rightly called a world that is “exploding all over” by blaming it all on forces that he is powerless to control. As Pete correctly pointed out, no one is arguing that the president of the United States is all-powerful and has the capacity to fix everything in the world that is out of order. But the problem is not so much the steep odds against which the administration is currently struggling, as its utter incapacity to look honestly at the mistakes it has made in the past five and half years and to come to the conclusion that sometimes you’ve got to change course in order to avoid catastrophes.

As has been pointed out several times here at COMMENTARY in the last month and is again highlighted by Diehl in his column, Obama’s efforts to absolve himself of all responsibility for the collapse in Iraq is completely disingenuous. The man who spent the last few years bragging about how he “ended the war in Iraq” now professes to have no responsibility for the fact that the U.S. pulled out all of its troops from the conflict.

Nor is he willing to second guess his dithering over intervention in Syria. The administration spent the last week pushing back hard against Hillary Clinton’s correct, if transparently insincere, criticisms of the administration in which she served, for having stood by and watched helplessly there instead of taking the limited actions that might well have prevented much of that country — and much of Iraq — from falling into the hands of ISIS terrorists.

The same lack of honesty characterizes the administration’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two topics that Diehl chose not to highlight in his piece.

Obama wasted much of his first term pointlessly quarreling with Israel’s government and then resumed that feud this year after an intermission for a re-election year Jewish charm offensive. This distancing from Israel and the reckless pursuit of an agreement when none was possible helped set up this summer’s fighting. The result is not only an alliance that is at its low point since the presidency of the elder George Bush but a situation in which the U.S. now finds itself pushing the Israelis to make concessions to Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority, a state of affairs that guarantees more fighting in the future and a further diminishment of U.S. interests in the region.

On Iran, Obama wasted years on feckless engagement efforts before finally accepting the need for tough sanctions on that nation to stop its nuclear threat. But the president tossed the advantage he worked so hard to build by foolishly pursuing détente with Tehran and loosening sanctions just at the moment when the Iranians looked to be in trouble.

On both the Palestinian and the Iranian front, an improvement in the current grim prospects for U.S. strategy is not impossible. But, as with the situation in Iraq, it will require the kind of grim soul-searching that, as Diehl points out, George W. Bush underwent in 2006 before changing both strategy and personnel in order to pursue the surge that changed the course of the Iraq War. Sadly, Obama threw away the victory he inherited from Bush. If he is to recover in this final two years in office the way Bush did, it will require the same sort of honesty and introspection.

But, unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the qualities that are absent from this otherwise brilliant politician. Obama is a great campaigner — a talent that is still on display every time he takes to the road to blame Republicans for the problems he created — and is still personally liked by much of the electorate (even if his charms are largely lost on conservative critics such as myself). But he seems incapable of ever admitting error, especially on big issues. At the heart of this problem is a self-regard and a contempt for critics that is so great that it renders him incapable of focusing his otherwise formidable intellect on the shortcomings in his own thinking or challenging the premises on which he has based his policies.

Saying you’re wrong is not easy for any of us and has to be especially hard for a man who has been celebrated as a groundbreaking transformational figure in our history. But that is exactly what is required if the exploding world that Obama has helped set in motion is to be kept from careening even further out of control before his presidency ends. The president may think he’s just having an unlucky streak that he can’t do a thing about. While it is true that America’s options are now limited (largely due to his mistakes) in Syria and Iraq, there is plenty he can do to prevent things from getting worse there. It is also largely up to him whether Iran gets a nuclear weapon or Hamas is able to launch yet another war in the near future rather than being isolated. But in order to do the right things on these fronts, he will have to first admit that his previous decisions were wrong. Until he shed the hubris that prevents him from doing so, it will be impossible.

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Obama Still Feeling Sorry for Himself

Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

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Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

About this answer, I’d say several things, starting with this one: When he ran for president, he spoke as if America did control everything in the world and therefore that everything that went wrong in the world was the fault of his predecessor. In other words, Mr. Obama spoke in exactly the terms he now complains his critics do. Having been humiliated by events, President Obama is now telling us that the world is a mighty complicated place – who knew? — and American power is so darn limited. In other words: Don’t blame me. I’m only the president. What on earth can I do?

Second, it wasn’t Mr. Obama’s critics, but Mr. Obama himself, who set the soaring expectations of what would be achieved if he were elected president. It is Mr. Obama, not others, who claimed his candidacy would “ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest.” (Just in case the point was lost on us, Mr. Obama ended by saying, “Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.”)

But that’s not all.

Mr. Obama spoke about how his presidency would “heal the planet” and stop the rise of the oceans. He would usher in unprecedentedly good relations with the world, including the Arab and Islamic world. The president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. There would be extraordinary strides taken toward peace between Israel and Palestinians. Relations with Russia would be “reset.” He’d successfully pivot to Asia. America would work cooperatively with China. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would end responsibly. The tide of war would recede. He would usher in an era of “smart diplomacy.” Apparently Mr. Obama has forgotten he said all this. We’ll do him the favor of reminding him.

Mr. Obama, in his statement during the press conference earlier this month, is also employing a favorite device of his: creating straw men as a way to discredit serious criticisms of him. No one I know assumes the United States is omnipotent. As a friend of mine put it, he’s content to hold the president to a much more pedestrian standard: has the actions Obama taken and, more importantly, the actions he has not taken, made the challenges he faced worse or better?  By that very modest standard, he told me, Mr. Obama has utterly failed.

“I certainly do not think President Obama is responsible for all of the world crises that have taken place during his time in office,” my former White House colleague William C. Inboden, told the New York Times’ Peter Baker. “But he is responsible for actions and attitudes he took that have contributed to some of those crises — and he is also responsible for how he responds, or fails to respond.”

Just so.

The president is desperately trying to escape blame for his failures. But those days are long gone. I would hope that someone in the president’s inner circle, who has standing in his life, would urge him to at least conduct himself in a manner that doesn’t come across as petulant, thin-skinned, and undignified. But that appears to be asking too much of Mr. Obama. He is not emotionally equipped to handle failure with even minimal grace.

His presidency is going down; and he’s determined to look small-minded and bad-tempered in the process.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy Indicted by His Own Team

One sign of the disrepair of Obama’s foreign policy is the admissions and/or criticism being leveled at it not from Republicans but from those who have served in the highest ranks of the Obama administration.

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One sign of the disrepair of Obama’s foreign policy is the admissions and/or criticism being leveled at it not from Republicans but from those who have served in the highest ranks of the Obama administration.

Take President Obama’s current secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, who admitted yesterday that “the world is exploding all over.” Those comments shouldn’t be confused with the ones made by Mr. Obama’s former defense secretary, Robert Gates, who earlier this year said this: “With all the talk of coming home, of nation building at home, the perception has grown increasingly around the world that the U.S. is pulling back from the global responsibilities that it has shouldered for many decades. I believe Russia and China, among others, see that void and are moving to see what advantage they can take of it.” Secretary Gates’s comments, in turn, shouldn’t be confused with those made by the president’s former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who a few days ago, in criticizing the president’s self-described “We don’t do stupid sh*t” doctrine, said this: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

The problem for Mr. Obama is that these statements are virtually self-evident. The president can be angry that three of his current and former Cabinet secretaries publicly said what they did. But it’s impossible to deny the merits of their critiques. Only someone living in a world of make-believe would say, for example, that “the tide of war is receding” or that “there have been a number of situations in which you’ve seen this administration intervene in a meaningful way that has . . . substantially improved the — you know, the tranquility of the — of the global community.”  It’s little wonder, then, that the president’s approval rating on foreign policy is now approaching sub-freezing temperatures (33 percent in the most recent McClatchy-Marist poll).

The foreign-policy failures of Mr. Obama are obvious and everywhere. We’re rapidly approaching the point where only the most slavish and obsequious Obama supporters–the Valerie Jarretts, the David Axelrods, and the David Plouffes of the world–can deny what is unfolding before our eyes. In doing so, they prove not their loyalty to Mr. Obama, but their blindness to reality. They aren’t serving the president; they’re disfiguring the truth.

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Hug it Out? Hillary Shows Weakness

If Hillary Clinton runs for president—as she almost certainly will—the former secretary of state is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But the sense of inevitability about her candidacy took a hit yesterday when she sought to back away from the quarrel she picked over the weekend with President Obama.

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If Hillary Clinton runs for president—as she almost certainly will—the former secretary of state is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But the sense of inevitability about her candidacy took a hit yesterday when she sought to back away from the quarrel she picked over the weekend with President Obama.

As I wrote on Monday, Clinton threw down the gauntlet to the president on foreign policy in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. No one doubted that she would at some point revert to the more centrist views on the world that contrasted with those of Obama during their 2008 primary battle. But Clinton’s willingness to judge the president’s decisions harshly seemed to mark a turning point in their complicated relationship. When she rightly damned Obama’s Syria policy as a “failure” that led directly to the current ISIS catastrophe in Iraq, that demonstrated her belief that she needed to distance herself from an increasingly unpopular incumbent heading into 2016.

Given the chaos that has erupted across the globe on the president’s watch, more distance from him would make sense for a Democrat who may not want the voters to think they are casting a ballot for a third term for Obama in 2016. But once the White House starting to push back strongly against her criticism and some in the liberal base of the party began to seethe about her flipping back to a “neoconservative” line about Iraq and in support of Israel, Clinton blinked.

Rather than stick to her guns and dare the left to try and oppose her, Clinton was quick to try and patch up the quarrel with the White House, calling the president and reportedly suggesting that the pair “hug it out” when they each other at a Martha’s Vineyard soiree they are both attending this week.

Maintaining some kind of détente with a sitting president who is the unchallenged leader of the Democrats and the idol of its base makes sense. But there was something craven in the unseemly speed with which Clinton sought to diffuse the controversy. Try as her team of media spinners might, there’s no disguising the fact that her attempt to cut straight to general-election campaign tactics without first having to curtsy the left-wing base of the Democrats isn’t going over very well.

There may be no credible Democratic alternatives currently willing to put their names up in opposition to Clinton right now. Whether they love the Clintons or not, most Democrats have bought into her compelling narrative about being the first female president as the best way to hold onto the White House. The Clintons’ ability to raise money and play hardball politics has also intimidated potential candidates into staying out of the race. But, as I also noted yesterday, that won’t stop liberal outliers like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders from mounting symbolic ideological protest candidacies that could prove troublesome even if no one on the left thinks he should be president.

But the Hillary broadside, followed by her quick retreat, has reminded many in her party that she may not be the political colossus that her admirers in the mainstream press insist she has become.

Like her 2008 candidacy, Clinton’s 2016 “inevitability” is based on the idea that she is so strong that no one other than a marginal figure like Sanders would dare oppose her. But liberals are starting to recall that while Barack Obama’s personal political magic was the main cause of her downfall in 2008, it was only made possible by the fact that most Democrats disliked her centrist foreign policy views.

While we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time Clinton seeks to create more daylight between herself and the man who was her boss for four years, her decision to once again play the person with adult foreign-policy views is bound to foment anger on the left. That means that it might be a mistake to think that Sanders is the only Democrat who believes a leftist challenge to Clinton makes sense. The more people that think about that, the more likely it will be that someone may step forward who could hurt her more than an avowed socialist. Clinton hopes this kerfuffle will only be a blip on the radar in her inevitable long march to the Democratic nomination and the presidency. But it might also be the moment when the 2008 dynamic that sunk her starts to kick in again even without an Obama to take the former first lady down.

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Why Wasn’t Obama Better Informed?

That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

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That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

The big thing that struck me was the president’s habit of blaming others for the world’s problems instead of taking personal responsibility. “Our politics are dysfunctional,” he said, and he blamed “the rise of the Republican far fight,” “gerrymandering, the Balkanization of the news media and uncontrolled money in politics.” These are all real factors but it’s striking the extent to which Obama won’t take any responsibility for aggravating the partisan divide and for not doing more to reach out to Republicans.

Next he blamed Iraqis for the problems the country has faced since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. “The fact is, said the president, in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not ‘squandered an opportunity’ to share power with Sunnis and Kurds.” True, but this disaster was entirely foreseeable; in fact it was foreseen by many of us who warned that absent U.S. troops, Iraq would not be able to function. Of course Iraqis deserve primary responsibility for their own woes, but it is striking the extent to which Obama won’t acknowledge how his mistake (in not trying harder to keep U.S. troops there) contributed to the current disaster.

He took a similar line regarding Syria, disparaging the Free Syrian Army which he has refused to help: “With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’ ”

Someone in the 18th century could well have described America’s own independence fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” and pooh-poohed the idea that they could stand against the “well-armed” British state. Yet they manage to defeat the British Empire with copious French arms, French training, and French naval power. In Syria we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army could have done if we had offered robust support from the beginning of the rebellion, as Hillary Clinton says she advocated, but it’s pretty disingenuous for Obama to blame these fighters for not having “as much capacity as you would hope” when we have failed to give them the capacity they desire.

The only personal responsibility Obama seemed to take was for the mess in Libya, although even here he insisted on sharing blame with our European allies: “I think,” he said, “we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this,” meaning if you’re going to topple Gaddafi. Yet curiously enough Obama never explained why he made this elementary mistake, which should have been obvious after the early failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not as if there was any secret about the possibility of post-Gaddafi disintegration in Libya or the need to send trainers and peacekeeping forces to avert such a disaster. I, for one, wrote regularly on this theme in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times not to mention in COMMENTARY. And I wasn’t alone. My boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, issued a similar warning in the Financial Times. You might think the president might have noticed one of these articles. Even if he hadn’t, his own advisers and intelligence experts should have been issuing similar warnings to him–if they didn’t, then they were guilty of gross negligence.

So why, one wonders, did Obama disregard these warnings not only in 2011 but in subsequent years even as Libya’s problems grew more and more severe? It’s nice that in one case at least the president is taking some ownership for a colossal error, but what’s amazing is that he’s still not fixing it. Instead he’s talking like a dispassionate analyst rather than as the commander in chief who has the capabilities of the world’s most powerful country at his command.

It is the president’s curious passivity, I believe, which accounts for the rapid disintegration of public confidence in his presidency and in particular in his foreign policy. Americans may not want to be entangled in foreign wars, but they want a strong, decisive president. That is certainly not the image Obama is projecting.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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The Anti-Rand Paul GOP Primary

The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

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The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

That’s the upshot of a pair of dueling op-ed articles published this week in which Texas Governor Rick Perry and Paul laid out their respective positions on foreign policy. Perry pulled no punches in an article published in the Washington Post last Friday as he labeled Paul an “isolationist.” Perry rightly pointed out that the positions Paul advocates would weaken America’s defense and standing around the world even more than President Obama’s disastrous policies, especially as a terrorist threat becomes more pronounced in the Middle East.

Paul argued in a response published yesterday in Politico that he was a realist, not an isolationist. But he gave away the game by claiming the difference between them was about his unwillingness to order Americans into Iraq, a signal that he intends to stick to a stance in which the use of U.S. power, as well as its exercise of influence, would be shelved in a Paul presidency.

Paul’s advantage here is that he is the unchallenged spokesman for the growing isolationist spirit within the GOP and the nation. He has inherited his father’s extreme libertarian base and expanded with a slick appeal rooted in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan war weariness. That gives him a sizable chunk of Republican primary voters and accounts for the fact that early polls show him with a slim plurality in a large field of potential candidates.

But it doesn’t guarantee Paul the nomination. To the contrary, though Paul is a formidable contender, there’s no reason to believe that the party that has championed strong defense and foreign policies for generations is morphing into the sort of organization where an extremist like Ron Paul, or even his son, who espouse foreign-policy views that are arguably to the left of Obama, speaks for the majority.

But Paul could succeed if the candidates who espouse mainstream GOP views on foreign policy siphon support from each other and allow him to slip through to victory. That’s why the fiercest fight in the upcoming campaign will not be between Paul and those who disagree with him but in the virtual primary as Republican foreign-policy hawks seek to claim the mantle as the anti-Paul candidate.

This will be especially important because although most voters will always be more concerned about the economy and domestic issues, the differences between the candidates on most of the other issues will be minimal. As things stack up now, other than immigration reform, foreign policy may be the only point on which there are significant differences among the Republicans.

Who will be competing in the anti-Paul primary?

The first name that comes to mind is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor’s decision to remind voters of his opposition to gay marriage made it clear that he’s still interested in running for president despite his ongoing Bridgegate troubles. And he fired a shot across Paul’s bow last year on the question of intelligence gathering that indicated a willingness to stake out ground to the libertarian’s right on defense policy. But Christie is still regarded by many in the grass roots as a moderate who will have problems drawing support from a party that has shifted to the right. More to the point, his expertise on foreign affairs appears to be minimal. While no one should underestimate Christie in a fight, this is not a man who is likely to gain any advantages by speaking about non-domestic or economic issues.

The other principal contender for the title of anti-Paul is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio has spent the last year giving speeches on foreign affairs and has the chops to make a strong case for himself as the most able spokesman of his generation for a strong American foreign policy. Based on his statements, Rubio is a clear choice to be the leading advocate for a strong America in his generation. But the jury is still out on whether Rubio can overcome a poor 2013 in which conservatives attacked him on immigration and Paul and Ted Cruz won the affection of the Tea Party (a group that once regarded him as a favorite).

There are others who would like use foreign policy to emerge from the pack of GOP candidates. Outliers like former ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King want to run on foreign policy but neither seems capable anything more than a symbolic candidacy. 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum has the expertise learned during years in the Senate and would give Paul a run for his money by articulating the case for stopping Iran and not allowing Islamists or the Russians to run the U.S. out of the Middle East. But while it would be foolish to underestimate Santorum (as I and just about everyone else did in 2012), he still looks right now to be a second-tier candidate until the contrary is proven.

There is also the possibility that someone else, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, will emerge as a rival to Paul. But Walker must first win reelection and then must articulate some strong positions on foreign policy, something that so far he has not done.

It is into that confusing array of contenders that Perry is seeking to inject himself. Perry’s disastrous 2012 run would have seemed to eliminate him from future consideration but after his very good week showing up Barack Obama on illegal immigration, the Texas governor seems to be a much more serious contender now than he did only a few weeks ago.

Perry doesn’t know as much about foreign policy as Rubio, Santorum, Bolton, or King and anyone who remembers his debate performances the last time around must regard his 2016 hopes as a long shot at best. But in contrast to his late start last time around, Perry is going in hard this time and seems better prepared. Moreover, by seeking to establish himself as the heir to the Reagan wing of the GOP (as opposed to Paul’s seeming effort to channel the spirit of Robert A. Taft, the isolationist champion of the 1940s), Perry has correctly targeted an issue that could give him a leg up in a battle that is only just starting.

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America: the Popular Hegemon

There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

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There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

Those numbers are all the more impressive when you compare the standing of America’s rivals. Russia’s negative ratings have spiked–now 43 percent of those surveyed view Putinland unfavorably while 34 percent have a positive view. As for China–whose diplomatic offensive at American expense has often been noted–it outscores the U.S. in popularity in only one region: the Middle East. Everywhere else–Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America–the U.S. is more popular.

When asked which country is their top ally, respondents in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam all answered the “U.S.” Only respondents in Malaysia and Pakistan described China as their top ally and the U.S. as their top threat. In Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, China was described as the top threat. (Indonesians seem confused–they named the U.S. as both the top ally and the top threat.)

Even more interesting is the fact that large majorities in all of China’s neighbors–and even in China itself–are worried that “territorial disputes between China and neighboring states could lead to a military conflict.” The survey indicates that more than 90 percent of those surveyed in the Philippines are worried as are more than 80 percent of those surveyed in South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Even in China itself more than 60 percent of those surveyed are worried about war.

The implication is clear: the U.S. still has a lot of capital in the world while China is rapidly dissipating whatever goodwill it might once have enjoyed with its aggressive and bombastic behavior. Obviously there is a lot more to foreign policy than popularity–it would be nice to be respected, not just liked–but nevertheless the survey does show an important and often under-appreciated source of American strength: namely the fact that most people around the world do not view us as a threat, no matter how powerful we may be, even when American behavior (e.g., on surveillance and drones) comes in for so much criticism. We are the benevolent superpower, the popular hegemon–not just in our own minds but in the minds of most other people around the world.

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The Obama Presidency Unravels

The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

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The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

Another poll–this one from the Gallup organization–finds that in his sixth year of office, the level of confidence in Mr. Obama’s presidency is 29 percent. That’s lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors.

But the president’s problem isn’t polling data; it’s objective conditions. While recent job reports have been somewhat encouraging, the deeper trends of the economy remain quite troubling. In the first quarter of this year, for example, the economy contracted by nearly 3 percent (the largest contraction in a non-recession in more than 40 years). Illegal immigrants are surging across the border, with more than 52,000 unaccompanied children detained since October.

The Supreme Court just handed the president a series of battering setbacks. “This has been an awful ten days,” the liberal but independent-minded law professor Jonathan Turley said. “[The Obama administration was] previously found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment and privacy. Then they were found to be in violation of the separation of powers. And now they have been found to be in violation of the First Amendment and the religion clauses. I mean, you just don’t want to get out of bed after a week like that.”

This all came after IRS Commissioner John Koskinen not only failed to contain the damage from the growing IRS scandal; he made things worse. Even prominent Democrats conceded Mr. Koskinen’s hearings on Capitol Hill were disastrous. An overwhelming majority of Americans (76 percent) believe the IRS deliberately destroyed emails; nearly as many (74 percent) want Congress to continue to investigate the scandal. The IRS scandal shouldn’t be confused with the scandal plaguing the VA, which I’ve written about elsewhere. And the president’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is, and is widely considered to be, a failure.

Let’s now shift our focus to events overseas.

The president whose foreign-policy doctrine is “we don’t do stupid s***” looks to have done plenty of it. America is now essentially a bystander while the richest and arguably most dangerous terrorist organization in the world is establishing control over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Iraq itself is breaking apart, thanks in good measure to Mr. Obama’s complete withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Syria is being consumed by a devastating civil war. (Mr. Obama, having previously mocked those who several years ago wanted to support opposition forces in Syria, is now doing just that, though by now the aid may be too little too late.) Jordan, having absorbed some 600,000 refugees from Syria, fears destabilization. The Egyptian government is conducting a brutal crackdown. Iran and Russia are extending their influence in the region. The Obama administration’s second-term effort to produce a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (within nine months!) was folly from the start. The situation is actually getting worse, with violent clashes escalating. Our allies in the Middle East are not only unnerved; they have given up confidence that the president is at all reliable.

But let’s not stop there. The situation in Afghanistan is worsening. Libya, rapidly deteriorating, is becoming a terrorist haven. In Asia, according to the New York Times, “China and its growing military are mounting a serious challenge to the regional dominance of the United States and its allies.” Violence is resurging in Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin warning earlier this week that he reserves the right to use force to defend Russian-speaking citizens there, an argument he used before he annexed Crimea. (The Obama administration has refused Ukraine’s request for military aid and intelligence to defend itself. We have, however, supplied the Ukrainian armed forces with ready-to-eat meals, in case they get hungry battling the Russian military.)

The president has varying degrees of complicity in what has gone wrong in the world. In some cases he bears considerable responsibility; in other cases not. But it was Mr. Obama, not his critics, who pledged to “remake the world” and to “heal the planet”; who promised to usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world that would “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.” It’s certainly reasonable to hold the president accountable to the standards he set and to the promises he made. As Obama himself said in the 2008 campaign, “words mean something.”

All of this presents a rather fascinating psychological case study. In the face of challenges and failure, some of us get better and some of us get worse. In this instance, the president’s worst tendencies are being amplified.

Among other things, Mr. Obama is becoming increasingly petty and petulant. In recent days he’s complained that Republicans “don’t do anything except block me. And call me names.” He’s taken to deriding the Speaker of the House by saying, “So sue me.” Instead of self-reflection, then, we are getting self-pity.

The president also appears to be growing more insular and isolated, exasperated that his greatness isn’t fully recognized by the rest of us. He’s increasingly disappointed that this nation and the world don’t conform to his wishes and ways. Frustrated by our constitutional system of checks and balances, Mr. Obama, the good progressive that he is, has decided he’ll simply ignore them. He wants what he wants.

The unraveling of his presidency is something Mr. Obama is having a great deal of difficulty processing. We have as president a man who is dogmatic, arrogant, vexed, increasingly embittered and feeling under siege.

This won’t end well.

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Rand Paul, the GOP’s Anti-Reagan

In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

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In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

There have been differences for sure–most notably Ronald Reagan’s challenge of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente, with Reagan embracing the roll-back of the Soviet empire–but they have all been differences among internationalists. Mr. Gerson argues that the rise of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul represents an effort by non-interventionists to remake the core national-security doctrine of the GOP. Gerson quotes George Mason Professor Colin Deuck, who says of Paul’s approach: “This is not just a rejection of Bush 43. It goes way beyond Reagan versus Nixon. It is an attempt to undo the Eisenhower administration, which locked Republicans into an internationalist stance.”

Mr. Gerson highlights Senator Paul’s positions on various national-security issues:

The talented, ambitious Republican senator, with little background in foreign affairs, has proposed defense cuts, opposed the “perpetual war” against terrorism, questioned American troop deployments in Germany and South Korea, and sought to limit presidential authority over the use of force (urging, for example, the congressional deauthorization of the Iraq and Afghan wars)… Paul has systematically opposed the forward deployment of American influence: drone strikes, military engagement, and foreign assistance (which, he argues, encourages “lethargy” and “insolence”). Paul’s “constitutional foreign policy” denies the legal basis of the war on terrorism, would place severe constraints on the executive, and hints at the existence of an oppressive national security state.

The political and policy atmosphere of 2013—conflict fatigue, the Arab’s Spring’s frightening turn, public concerns about drone policy, revelations about NSA spying—could hardly have been more favorable to Rand Paul’s rise. It is particularly revealing what a leader says when he is on top of the world. During his 12-hour, 52-minute drone filibuster, Paul felt enough support and permission to make extraordinary claims about the potential misuse of presidential power. “That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco,” he said, “or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination.”

This was the perfect melding of domestic and foreign policy libertarianism—an assertion that the national security state might not only violate your privacy but also take your life during lunch. It was also a paranoid delusion. Taken as a serious argument, it would mean that the president of the United States can’t be trusted with advanced weaponry.

Senator Paul understands that his libertarian convictions are still out of step with many in the GOP, which is why he’s careful in how much he reveals, careful in the battles he chooses, and why he insists his views are Reaganesque (his latest effort can be found in his op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal).

Having worked in the Reagan administration and having read a great deal about Reagan and his presidency, it is risible for Paul to claim his philosophy mirrors Reagan’s. America’s fortieth president, among other things, was not drawn to bizarre conspiracies, which Paul can be. (For example, Paul accused Vice President Cheney of being in favor of the Iraq war because of his ties to Halliburton and warns that the NSA might soon “start using the GPS feature in your phone to track whether or not you go to gun shows.”) Rand Paul’s philosophy is much closer to his father Ron Paul’s than Reagan’s or, for that matter, Eisenhower’s.

Senator Paul, then, does not represent simply a different point on the GOP’s post-World War II foreign-policy continuum. He is a break from that tradition. Whether that is wise or not is open to debate. But Mr. Paul should at least have the courage of his libertarian convictions. Particularly if he decides to run for president in 2016, Paul should level with us about how radically different his foreign policy as president would be from those of the last six Republican presidents.

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How Obama Misread the Public

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

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A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

On the one hand Americans like the idea of letting others sort out their own problems, of pulling back, and focusing on “nation-building at home.” On the other hand Americans don’t like cutting deals with terrorists (to release Bowe Bergdahl), letting other states get invaded with impunity (Ukraine) or seeing a hard-won victory in Iraq unravel following American withdrawal.

What Americans really don’t like is when they perceive a lack of leadership in the Oval Office–when the U.S. does not look strong abroad and when our enemies are on the march. That is the case now.

President Obama is not doing what he’s doing in foreign policy because of the public opinion polls; he’s doing it because he really believes in the benefits of retreat and retrenchment. But no doubt he has been comforted in his decisions by the public opinion surveys which show large public approval of his most dovish actions. In retrospect that public support turns out to be illusory.

So now Obama should take with a grain of salt polls which show that the public opposes further involvement in Iraq. That may be the case but the public also opposes the establishment of terrorist states. Obama should have the courage to do the right thing in Iraq–as President Bush did during the surge which was initially unpopular–regardless of what the polls say today.

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Toward An Achesonian Foreign Policy

One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

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One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

Obama would do well to read Dean Acheson’s memoir, Present at the Creation. In it, Acheson writes of the bad-faith actions and stubbornness of the Soviet Union’s diplomats. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, signals his determination to further engage the Soviets in a twenty-year plan to have the UN lead the world to peace. “It was to start off with something that, despite Mr. Lie’s protestations, sounded very much like appeasement to me, luring the Soviet Union back to the United Nations, from which Malik and his cohorts had withdrawn, by the majority’s reversing itself and seating the Communists as the representatives of China,” Acheson writes. “To me all this made little sense.”

He continues:

I said that on Chinese representation we held to our expressed views but would “accept the decision of any organ of the United Nations made by the necessary majority, and we [would] not walk out.” So far as negotiations were concerned we would consider anything put forward in the United Nations, but, meanwhile, “we can’t afford to wait and merely hope that [Soviet] policies will change. We must carry forward in our own determination to create situations of strength in the free world, because this is the only basis on which lasting agreement with the Soviet Government is possible.”

That phrase “situations of strength” became an essential component of Acheson’s prosecution of American foreign policy in the postwar world. The Truman administration, which Acheson served, was dealing with an obstacle that would ring familiar to President Obama. The country was surely war weary–after a second world war, it would have been strange not to be. Additionally, our European allies were suddenly not in shape to prop up the free world with minimal American involvement, and our Russian partners were keen to take advantage of European weakness and American optimism toward the end of conflict.

The “situations of strength” were not intended to replace negotiations but to strengthen America’s hand. And they required American power projection in ways that would deter aggression. We had to be ready to fight, in other words, so that we wouldn’t have to. Here is Henry Kissinger in 2006 reflecting on Acheson’s strategy:

He interpreted it to mean that the task of foreign policy was to create situations of strength around the Soviet periphery to deter any temptation for aggression. Negotiation with the Soviet Union was to be deferred until these situations of strength had come into being; any attempt to begin diplomacy prematurely would undermine the primary task.

Acheson’s overriding priority, in the years immediately following World War II, was to restore Western Europe and create an Atlantic community to resist what then appeared as the Soviet colossus. He built the structure that sustained democracy during the cold war, with the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the return of Germany and Japan to the community of nations.

Yet it is precisely these methods Obama has ignored. The door to NATO was slammed on nations in Russia’s line of fire; budget outlays for democracy promotion and programs to help build civil society in troubled parts of the world were cut; residual forces who were needed mostly to train others and to act as arbiters of internal discord were recalled; and wishful thinking and self-delusion about the intentions of others dominated an obsession with diplomacy at all costs.

There are ways, after a decade of war, to safeguard the gains and strengthen allies while avoiding new wars and working within the confines of public opinion. It’s been done before. But it still requires a level of American leadership with which Obama just doesn’t appear to be comfortable.

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Explaining Politics to the Political Scientists

Julia Azari, an assistant political science professor at Marquette, has a column in Politico Magazine that begins with a rather simple premise: President Obama’s conservative critics sometimes call him too weak and sometimes call him too strong. Isn’t this, Professor Azari asks, contradictory? Specifically, the question is centered on the fact that conservatives think Obama’s foreign policy is too timid, but his domestic policy is heavyhanded, overly bureaucratized and centralized, and sometimes unconstitutional and antidemocratic.

Azari wonders why that is. She’ll be cheered to know there is a very easy answer to this, and it’s one nearly anyone could answer: this is precisely how our system of government was designed. That is, the president is the commander in chief, and has far more latitude to conduct foreign policy than domestic policy. Therefore, when he tries to institute liberal experiments on domestic policy, he runs into the United States Congress, a coequal branch of the government. When he doesn’t get his way, he can be tempted to go around Congress.

Azari suspects this is the answer–that the Constitution has something to do with it, and several paragraphs in answers her own question:

Being seen as simultaneously too strong and too weak is a structural condition for presidents. The framers of the Constitution debated about how to design an executive strong enough to protect the country, but still constrained by the rule of law. Writing from the vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, the political scientist Richard Neustadt argued that when presidents resort to unilateral “command,” it means their efforts to persuade others have failed. In this sense, it would certainly be possible for the president to both lack the necessary strength to govern and to have the capacity to use the powers of the office in excessive and even constitutionally questionable ways– in both foreign and domestic policy.

But with regard to Obama, Azari quickly rejects the obviously correct answer because it would make Obama’s opponents sound so reasonable. So Azari must venture bravely forth, beyond the safe compound of political science and into the fire swamp of irrational, malicious gibberish:

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Julia Azari, an assistant political science professor at Marquette, has a column in Politico Magazine that begins with a rather simple premise: President Obama’s conservative critics sometimes call him too weak and sometimes call him too strong. Isn’t this, Professor Azari asks, contradictory? Specifically, the question is centered on the fact that conservatives think Obama’s foreign policy is too timid, but his domestic policy is heavyhanded, overly bureaucratized and centralized, and sometimes unconstitutional and antidemocratic.

Azari wonders why that is. She’ll be cheered to know there is a very easy answer to this, and it’s one nearly anyone could answer: this is precisely how our system of government was designed. That is, the president is the commander in chief, and has far more latitude to conduct foreign policy than domestic policy. Therefore, when he tries to institute liberal experiments on domestic policy, he runs into the United States Congress, a coequal branch of the government. When he doesn’t get his way, he can be tempted to go around Congress.

Azari suspects this is the answer–that the Constitution has something to do with it, and several paragraphs in answers her own question:

Being seen as simultaneously too strong and too weak is a structural condition for presidents. The framers of the Constitution debated about how to design an executive strong enough to protect the country, but still constrained by the rule of law. Writing from the vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, the political scientist Richard Neustadt argued that when presidents resort to unilateral “command,” it means their efforts to persuade others have failed. In this sense, it would certainly be possible for the president to both lack the necessary strength to govern and to have the capacity to use the powers of the office in excessive and even constitutionally questionable ways– in both foreign and domestic policy.

But with regard to Obama, Azari quickly rejects the obviously correct answer because it would make Obama’s opponents sound so reasonable. So Azari must venture bravely forth, beyond the safe compound of political science and into the fire swamp of irrational, malicious gibberish:

Instead, there’s a case to be made that this dual narrative is specific to the Obama presidency. Subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages about Obama’s nationality and masculinity are rife in these critiques. Comparing Putin and Obama, Sarah Palin famously commented that Obama wears “mom jeans.” On matters abroad, the implication—as with the Bergdahl case—is often that Obama demonstrates excessive sympathy for foreigners at the expense of American interests. Dictatorship narratives often include either Soviet or Nazi imagery. The factor tying the two narratives together is the idea that Obama’s very loyalties are suspect. In other words, dictatorship and weakness are both logical extensions of the claim, prevalent in some conservative circles, that Obama is not quite one of us and not an appropriate symbol of American identity.

Now, you might be tempted to steer Azari back to the land of the lucid. Republicans have accused other Democratic presidents in the past of being weak on national security, and Barack Obama himself ran–twice–on a platform that consisted, essentially, of accusing his Republican opponent of being too chicken to invade nuclear-armed Islamist countries in Central Asia. So, no, I don’t think it’s the “mom jeans” thing.

Nor is this new. Was Truman–a Democrat, by the way–accusing Eisenhower of being a feminine foreigner when he mocked Ike’s attitude toward the Soviet Union as all talk? One thinks not. (Ike was president at the time, too; Truman had already left office.) The supposed contradiction of weak on foreign affairs and statist at home is not only not mutually exclusive, as Azari seems to realize, but not unique to Obama either. Just as Azari names conservative pundits who make both accusations of Obama, she can easily dig up liberal pundits accusing George W. Bush of–in the same monologue–being a fascist and being stupid and un-American and guided by the political doctrines of our enemies.

There’s been something of a cottage industry for liberal institutions to believe–against all evidence and history–that there’s something unprecedented (as the president might say) about the partisan rancor aimed at Barack Obama. What is actually unique is the aggressiveness of the defensive posture the media and academy have taken when it comes to criticism of this president.

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Is Gladstone a Model for the GOP?

In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.

Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.

In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

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In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.

Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.

In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

Gladstone was certainly no isolationist. He criticized the Tories for not doing more about the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of Christians in Bulgaria, and as prime minister he oversaw the virtual annexation of Egypt in 1882. But, contradictory as his thinking often appears, he was less imperialist than his Conservative rivals such as Disraeli and Salisbury.

No matter how much Disraeli and Gladstone, in particular, were often ranged against each other on matters of policy both domestic and foreign, they shared in the Victorian consensus that Britain needed to keep defense spending low so as not to be a burden on the people’s purses or liberties. Britain spent enough to maintain the world’s largest navy but even its naval hegemony was increasingly challenged by a German naval buildup in the early 20th century. Meanwhile the British army remained tiny, fit only for imperial campaigning.

This was all part of a strategy that today is called “offshore balancing”: British policymakers vowed they could safeguard their interests by controlling the seas without having to intervene in a major land war in Europe. This is the same strategy that many urge on the U.S. today–in fact a strategy that the Obama administration seems to be implementing as we downsize our army to the lowest level since 1940. Yet all it takes is a passing familiarity with British history to see how delusional and self-destructive this policy can be.

The very fact that Britain lacked an army capable of fighting the armies of Europe meant that Britain was unable to deter German aggression in either 1914 or 1939. Indeed the British aversion to land warfare called into doubt its commitments to allies such as Belgium and France and led German militarists to gamble they could overrun Europe without major hindrance from London. In the event, the German calculation was wrong–Britain’s entry into both World War I and World War II was a key obstacle to German designs. But Britain paid a huge price for not being able to deter German aggression in the first place.

Worried about spending too much on defense, the Victorians and their successors spent too little, and wound up having their country and their empire bled dry in conflagrations that might have been avoided if Britain had done more to defend itself and its allies. There is an important lesson here for present-day Republicans who focus only on reducing the size of government. They should not forget that government’s first duty is to defend the country and if it is unable to do that–or even if it is able to do so but only after a long, costly struggle that might have been avoided–then short-term cost savings on defense will prove ephemeral. In the end military weakness is far more costly than military strength. That was a lesson that Gladstone and other Victorian titans ignored and that their would-be successors should heed.

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Obama Hopelessly Out of His Depth

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, including today, I’ve heard Barack Obama talk about what we owe our veterans–about how what’s happening to them in the VA scandal is intolerable, how reforms to the system are urgently needed, how the problems need to be fixed, and how we need to do right by our veterans across the board.

It’s a scathing criticism of the status quo, really, a harsh indictment of those in power and a powerful theme for a candidate to run on.

What I find rather odd, however, is that this critique is being offered by a man who is serving his second term as president. It’s being offered, in fact, by a man who was identifying these VA problems long before he first ran for president. Yet they’ve worsened on his watch. And he wants us to know he’s mighty outraged about it.

Which zeroes in on one of the problems of the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama appears to like the perks of office. (His golf game has certainly improved.) He clearly loves the prestige of being president. And he likes to talk a lot about what should be done about things like the mistreatment of our veterans in VA hospitals, income inequality, rising poverty, higher health-care premiums and deductibles, chronic unemployment, and the exploding debt. Mr. Obama can often be heard lamenting the polarized state of our politics, hyper-partisanship, and the failure of both sides to work together. He is eager to make known his unhappiness with the aggressive acts of Russia, the brutality we’re seeing in Syria, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, and much more.

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Over the course of the last couple of weeks, including today, I’ve heard Barack Obama talk about what we owe our veterans–about how what’s happening to them in the VA scandal is intolerable, how reforms to the system are urgently needed, how the problems need to be fixed, and how we need to do right by our veterans across the board.

It’s a scathing criticism of the status quo, really, a harsh indictment of those in power and a powerful theme for a candidate to run on.

What I find rather odd, however, is that this critique is being offered by a man who is serving his second term as president. It’s being offered, in fact, by a man who was identifying these VA problems long before he first ran for president. Yet they’ve worsened on his watch. And he wants us to know he’s mighty outraged about it.

Which zeroes in on one of the problems of the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama appears to like the perks of office. (His golf game has certainly improved.) He clearly loves the prestige of being president. And he likes to talk a lot about what should be done about things like the mistreatment of our veterans in VA hospitals, income inequality, rising poverty, higher health-care premiums and deductibles, chronic unemployment, and the exploding debt. Mr. Obama can often be heard lamenting the polarized state of our politics, hyper-partisanship, and the failure of both sides to work together. He is eager to make known his unhappiness with the aggressive acts of Russia, the brutality we’re seeing in Syria, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, and much more.

But when it comes to actual, measurable achievements–when it comes to effectively dealing with our problems rather than simply talking about them–Mr. Obama is hopelessly out of his depth.  

In saying this I’m not asking anyone to measure the president against some imaginary and impossible standard of perfection. I’m simply asking people to judge him by his own words, his own promises, his own commitments. It’s not simply that Mr. Obama hasn’t achieved what he said he would; it’s that so many things have, by any reasonable and empirical standard, gotten worse, and often a good deal worse, since Obama took office. Mr. Obama has fallen short on virtually every front and on virtually every issue. He is simply awful when it comes to governing.

He would, however, be a fine addition to the Meet the Press roundtable.

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What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

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The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

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Obama Overstates Stability in Ukraine

In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but 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.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

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In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but 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.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

Meanwhile a full-blown civil war appears to be growing in eastern Ukraine where, despite Vladimir Putin’s slightly less belligerent rhetorical approach of late, his minions continue to fight to prevent the re-establishment of central authority. The latest news is that separatists used a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a helicopter carrying 14 Ukrainian soldiers including a general. This comes just a few days after a major battle for control of Donetsk’s airport, which had been seized by rebels, left more than 50 people dead. “Many of those killed in the fighting were Russian citizens fighting on the rebel side,” the New York Times notes, which would not be the case if Putin were truly interested in respecting Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ukraine faces massive challenges to ward off Russian aggression while dealing with corruption and other internal problems. It’s good that the country just held a presidential election, but Obama should know better than to cite a vote as a sign that everything is getting better–that was the mistake George W. Bush repeatedly made in Iraq.

Ukraine still needs lots of aid if it is to remain whole and free, and the U.S. has not been providing it. Neither have our allies. The Obama administration, for example, is still refusing to provide any military supplies beyond MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). As is so often the case, President Obama seems to prefer giving a fancy speech to implementing a substantive policy.

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Obama’s Fantasy World

In his speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama attempted to lay out his vision for America and the world in the years to come. 

The address was notable for several things, beginning with what is by now Mr. Obama’s almost comical use of straw men, with the president creating one imaginary critic and sham argument after another. (Max Boot recounts them here; the Washington Post does so here.) What was also apparent in this speech was another Obama trait: prickliness and pettiness, in this case using a military academy commencement ceremony to mock his critics. “Those who argue … that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president asserted. (More about that claim later.)

The West Point address also revealed an extraordinary category error by America’s commander in chief. Mr. Obama seems to think “winding down” a war is synonymous with success. They can actually be antonyms, as in Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama wants his legacy to be that he ended two wars. It may well be that his legacy is that he lost two wars.

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In his speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama attempted to lay out his vision for America and the world in the years to come. 

The address was notable for several things, beginning with what is by now Mr. Obama’s almost comical use of straw men, with the president creating one imaginary critic and sham argument after another. (Max Boot recounts them here; the Washington Post does so here.) What was also apparent in this speech was another Obama trait: prickliness and pettiness, in this case using a military academy commencement ceremony to mock his critics. “Those who argue … that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president asserted. (More about that claim later.)

The West Point address also revealed an extraordinary category error by America’s commander in chief. Mr. Obama seems to think “winding down” a war is synonymous with success. They can actually be antonyms, as in Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama wants his legacy to be that he ended two wars. It may well be that his legacy is that he lost two wars.

In his speech Mr. Obama could not defend his actual record, which is (perhaps with the exception of Burma) ruinous. So he opted for a “vision” speech. But the problem here is that the president didn’t lay out a vision so much as invoked a myth. He doesn’t seem to realize that false claims, repeated ad nauseam, don’t become more true. And what are the (related) false claims the president kept reciting like an incantation? Let the president speak for himself:

America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…. the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation…  The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead… Here’s my bottom line:  America must always lead on the world stage.

But of course during the Obama Era the United States has not led, and intentionally so. As an Obama adviser told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in 2011, the closest thing to a doctrine animating the Obama foreign policy is “leading from behind.” Here is the relevant paragraph from the Lizza story

Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

So there you have it. The Obama administration, by its own admission, believes the relative power of the U.S. is declining. There’s no word yet on when Mr. Obama will indict himself for either misreading history or engaging in partisan politics. 

America in decline has been the operating premise of the Obama administration from Day One; “leading from behind” is how they have sought to manage that decline. But the president, having been hammered for being both weak and inept, is now personally leading a PR campaign to twist things around. He wants you to believe that leading from behind is really leading from ahead. And if you are Barack Obama, post-modernist, facts are subordinated to “narrative.” Truth is not an objective account of the way things are; it is what proves most helpful in interpreting events. (See “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period.”) Which means the president thinks he can make things up–that he can reinvent reality–as he goes along. What he’s finding out is he can’t. In the end, reality catches up to all of us. Even Barack Obama.

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