Commentary Magazine

Explaining Obama’s Foreign Policy

To the Editor:

In his description of Barack Obama’s basic beliefs on America’s position in the world [“The Citizen of the World Presidency,” September], Elliott Abrams surprisingly did not support his assertion of the president’s spinelessness in foreign policy by describing the White House’s response to the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the follow-up Egyptian revolt in July 2013, and the recent increasingly large role of Hezbollah in Syria.

Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate in Egypt’s first democratic election, won about 51 percent of the vote. The White House then announced it would recognize the new moderate Muslim leader. Morsi proceeded to appoint Brotherhood members to various ministries, extend and strengthen Sharia law, and do almost nothing to address Egypt’s almost 30 percent unemployment rate and sharply declining foreign-exchange reserves. The United States was silent. A year later, after 22 million people signed anti-Morsi petitions, the military seized power. First, the U.S. ambassador denounced the “coup,” though the White House refused to use that word, and then Secretary of State John Kerry justified Morsi’s removal by citing the millions of signatures, implying that democracy had been fulfilled. Even today it is unclear what the White House’s position is.

More mysterious, and louder, was the silence of the White House after Hezbollah publicly announced it was sending troops to Syria to support Assad. Wasn’t this event a “game changer” in that a foreign terrorist group, protected by another country, intervened in violation of the UN Charter? Didn’t Obama demand earlier that Assad “step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately”? Spinelessness is no strategy, and the two should not be confused or conflated.

Bertrand Horwitz
Asheville, North Carolina

To the Editor:

Kudos to Elliott Abrams for his intellectual tour de force on Barack Obama’s worldview. Most of us look at Obama’s foreign policy and think, “What foreign policy?” But Abrams has managed to isolate, from a close reading of Obama’s words and deeds, a continuous thread amounting to an underlying rationale for an “Obama Doctrine”—one that seems to account for much otherwise contradictory or seemingly inexplicable action or inaction—confusing at times even to members of his own administration.

Neither neoconservative nor realpolitik, nor humanitarian nor isolationist, the Obama Doctrine is above all transcendent. In this conception the president exercises the steadfast pursuit of a lofty, nearly otherworldly passivity—right out of an Ivy League gabfest—a kind of philosophical experiment the president seems to think will transform international relations. But as Mr. Abrams points out, Obama—with the exception of drone strikes against al-Qaeda—is actually presiding over a neglected world that is worsening in many ways and in many places. The impression is of a man in steely command and control of himself and his vision even in the face of mounting failure and an increasingly chaotic future.

It is an intriguing and frightening theory. But if you apply Occam’s Razor to this mystery, would it not more likely be a case of there simply being “less there than meets the eye”? Go back over all the previous presidents of the United States, and you will not find one with less experience in managing or governing in elective or appointive office, public or private, and with less time under public scrutiny (or under a scrutiny less skeptical) than Obama.

All these ditherings over postures, decisions, and crises, from the Afghanistan surge to Libya, to Benghazi, to China, Russia and Iran, to Mali and now Syria, that Elliott Abrams might see as the working out of a coherent vision, may simply be what they appear to be on the surface—ditherings.

Take Afghanistan. The president ponders for months, Hamlet-like, unable to make up his mind, and when he finally announces the surge, simultaneously announces a mission-choking withdrawal date, leaving Americans dumbfounded at the clear path to failure thus established. But Obama’s working his inner conflicts out in public isn’t so reminiscent of Hamlet as Malvolio, a man in over his head who fancies he is having “greatness thrust upon him.”

As Mr. Abrams points out, the results of this presidency’s policies are trending toward the tragic, whether through a purposeful vision or simply through some combination of short-sightedness, hesitancy, poll-driven expediency, and peevish self-regard. In many instances the latter analysis seems as logical an explanation as the former.

Scot McConachie
Des Plaines, Illinois

To the Editor:

How much of Barack Obama’s foreign policy can be attributed not to strategy or worldview, as Elliott Abrams suggests, but to simple historical ignorance? Obama denounces the past behavior of the United States on the world stage, as if he is totally unaware of the generosity of the Marshall Plan, which gave aid not only to our allies, but also to our former enemies in World War II. What other country has such a humanitarian record?

Judy Wubnig
Cambridge, Massachusetts

To the Editor:

I believe that Elliott Abrams’s article misses an important point about Barack Obama and his beliefs. Obama looks at America as an evil place, with evil ideals and an evil history. The country is too corrupt to lead in the world, just as Republicans are too corrupt for him to soil his hands by working with them domestically.

To that end Obama wishes for America to become an isolated nation, withdraw from the world, and let other organizations (preferably multinational ones like the UN) handle affairs beyond our shores. Meanwhile he and his fellow believers can remold the United States into a humbled oligarchy or socialist state that will “adjust” its citizens into the appropriate mind-set. All he wants is to be left alone to reshape and remodel domestic American politics; the rest of the world is irrelevant to him.

Clearly this is a prescription for disaster, but if he’s not around to see it or be blamed for it, it doesn’t really matter to him.

John Kay
New Lexington, Ohio

Elliott Abrams writes:

I am grateful for these and the many other letters that responded to my article. The central debate seems to be whether President Obama’s foreign-policy failures reflect incompetence, ideology, spinelessness, or ignorance. 

Bertrand Horwitz argues that “spinelessness” is the key attribute of Obama’s policy and presents the powerful example of Hezbollah in Syria. He’s right: Just a few years ago neither Hezbollah nor Iran would have risked sending expeditionary forces to Syria. They’ve done it because they (rightly) assessed that the United States would offer no resistance. The current nuclear negotiations with Iran may soon present another example. Iran appears to be on the ropes economically, but we are the ones desperate for a deal, any deal, so as to avoid the need to use force. No one can seriously argue today that “all options are on the table,” and the Iranians know it.

Egypt seems to me a separate case, but there, too, Obama’s policy has been foolish and feckless. We have kissed up to whoever was in power—from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood to the army—following an unprincipled policy that has offended everyone in Egypt, from Islamists to generals to democrats, and thereby losing the influence we had maintained for 40 years.

Scot McConachie argues for incompetence. Certainly the recent Syria bombing/no bombing escapade strengthens his argument: Vacillation by the president, mixed messages, and confusion among administration officials and Democrats in Congress created a foreign-policy disaster. When a president who, as Mr. McConachie says, lacks executive experience—and, one might add, foreign-policy experience—governs under the belief that he needs little advice and is the smartest person in any room, disaster is not unlikely.

Judy Wubnig tends to the ignorance argument, but Obama’s Nobel lecture contradicts that conclusion. There the president noted that after World War II, “America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace: a Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, restrict the most dangerous weapons.” Indeed he went further, rightly attributing much of the world’s peace and progress to American might: “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.” So Obama is aware of the foreign-policy tradition he is today rejecting.

Still, I remain convinced that ideology plays a central role in Obama-administration policy. Here I agree with John Kay, though I did not think that in the article I missed the point he makes. I wrote that to Obama “national power is an improper goal” and “American leadership is a dangerous narcotic.”

In his view, I suggested, “we are more dangerous because we are more powerful. Thus we require more strenuous efforts from our leaders to hold us back, as Obama is doing.” Obama appears to believe in a unique form of containment: It is the United States he seeks to contain.

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