Commentary Magazine


A Leadership Vacuum? Obama Created It

President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today contained much of the usual boilerplate material we’ve come to expect from any American president. The laundry list of international issues touched upon was voluminous. We learned that the president is almost as concerned about the situation in Mali as he is the Middle East peace process. He favors human rights whenever possible (no, we’re not cutting off ties with Egypt’s military government and rightly so) and would like very much to have some sort of diplomatic process with Iran so as to avoid having to keep his promise to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

There was much in the address that was commendable and some points that were risible, especially his insistence that diplomacy with Iran must be given a chance–as if more than a decade of futile efforts that have been used by Tehran to buy more time for their nuclear program had never happened. But one got the feeling that the most important audience for this speech was not so much at the world body but Congress and the American people. After Benghazi, the missteps in Egypt, the flubbed Syria crisis, and with every indication that he is about to punt on the imperative to stop Iran, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that the president has a coherent foreign policy that can be defended. But lost in the middle of his lengthy oration, Obama did at least try to come to grips with one of the core issues being debated in the country now: isolationism.

The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.

Obama is largely right on both counts. But one of the main reasons why the spirit of isolationism is posing such a threat to a strong American foreign policy is five years of uninspiring leadership and administration failures that have made Rand Paul’s point of view look like a rational alternative.

Faced with a president who is committed to avoiding confrontation with the nation’s foes and rivals while also eager to use executive power to spy and employ drone attacks, it’s not hard to understand why so many Americans have grown weary and cynical about the need to engage with the world. Part of that was the fruit of the Bush administration’s unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But having run for office declaring his lack of interest in fighting terror or in promoting democracy abroad, it is difficult for this president to turn around and explain to the American people why the hated neo-cons were basically right to speak about American exceptionalism and the necessity for the U.S. to act on behalf of human rights.

If there is a potential leadership vacuum in the world it is the one that Barack Obama created with the incoherent zigzag course on which he has steered the country from crisis to crisis. After claiming credit for ending the war in Iraq that Bush had largely won by the time he left office, insulting allies like Israel and the Czech Republic, leading from behind in Libya, angering both the Islamists and the military in Egypt, and not leading at all on Syria and Iran, does Obama wonder why Americans think the government can’t be trusted to act abroad?

There is no doubt that the isolationist caucus in the Senate and House is gaining supporters on both sides of the aisle. But that is due as much to Barack Obama’s inability to make a case for a strong American foreign policy and to sustain it with action as it is to the ability of people like Rand Paul to call into question the need for the nation to remain engaged in the great struggle against Islamist terror and other totalitarian threats to freedom. But it is hard for the man who just got played like a piano by Vladimir Putin and seems ready to lie down for Hassan Rouhani’s fake charm offensive to issue a call to engage with the world that anyone can take seriously.

Rather than talking to his beloved U.N. about the need for a strong America in an address that was characteristically laced with caveats about grievances with the U.S. being justified, he should be telling this to Congress. Even better, perhaps he should give the same pep talk to himself the next time he feels himself about to punt on yet another foreign crisis.

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