When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.
Of course, a resurgent Russia is just one of many challenges the United States now faces. Obama kept his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, only to be forced by the eruption of ISIS to re-engage at least symbolically even if not substantively. Libya—the marquee example of leading from behind—has descended into chaos. And Obama’s inaction in Syria has enabled a bad situation to grow much worse. Turkey has transformed itself into an anti-Western autocracy more intent on encouraging the growth of radical Islamism abroad than promoting peace at home. By acting more like a zoning commissioner than a world leader, Obama has managed to take Israeli-Palestinian relations to their nadir.
So how could it be that Obama is lucky?
It’s always tempting for partisans to blame events on the world stage upon the occupant of the Oval Office rather than the rogue who has free will. It is absolutely true that the world does not revolve around Washington D.C. That said, Obama’s decisions have contributed to some of the worst aspects of the current crises. Rather than see Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia as a sign of Putin’s true character, Obama sought to appease the Russian leader. Pulling the rug out from allies like Poland and the Czech Republic only encouraged Putin further by depicting the United States as desperate for a deal regardless of the cost to its allies. Undersecretary for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher completed the trifecta by acquiescing to almost every Russian demand in order to come to agreement on the START treaty, and then by downplaying if not hiding Russian cheating.
Nor would ISIS have made the advances it made in recent months had the United States maintained a residual force in Iraq or moved to strike at the radicals as they gathered strength in Syria. While Obama prized leading from behind in Libya, that decision came at the cost of failing to secure Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s arms caches, leading extremists to seize thousands of surface-to-air missiles and enabling a weapons flow which has destabilized a broad swath of the Sahel, including Mali—once ranked by Freedom House as the most free majority-Muslim country on earth.
But consider this: As bad as Vladimir Putin is, imagine that China had a ruler not only as nationalistic (it does) but as willing to use brute military force to achieve its aims (at present, China is happy to posture and build its capabilities). Why work diplomatically to take Taiwan back into its fold when they could achieve their aim in days. It would be a pretty safe bet that Obama might finger wag, but he wouldn’t do a thing. Or imagine North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un interpreted Obama’s inaction as reason to turn Seoul—well within range of North Korea’s artillery—into a sea of fire. At worst, the North Korean leader would face a press conference with Obama threatening to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations. Back in 1982, an economically failing Argentina decided to distract its public by seizing the British-held Falkland Islands. Today, the same thing could occur, only Britain is too impotent to respond and the White House—with its misguided notion of colonial guilt—might actually side with Buenos Aires. ISIS has marched across the heart of the Middle East, but it has yet to topple Jordan or Lebanon, or teach Turkey a listen or two about blowback. That might simply be a matter of time, however: King Abdullah II of Jordan is popular everywhere but within his own country, and ISIS is gaining momentum.
Simply put, the world could be far more dangerous than it is right now. That China, North Korea, Iran, Argentina, and other aggressors or potential aggressors haven’t made their move is more a matter of luck than the natural outcome of Obama’s policies.