The Perils of Obama’s Foreign Policy

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The mystery remaining about the Obama administration’s foreign policy is not whether it has worked, but whether its failures will matter all that much. That is no rhetorical question, given that it is hard to permanently damage, in just three years, the position abroad of the United States, given its vast military power and enormous economy.

The Obama administration’s policy was predicated on three assumptions. First, world tensions and widespread dislike of the United States were due to George Bush’s wars and his cowboyish style. Therefore, outreach and reset would correct the Bush mistakes — given that unrest did not really antedate, and would not postdate, the strutting Bush. The unique personal narrative and heritage of Obama and his tripartite name, of course, would earn America fides in inverse proportion to Bush’s twang and evangelical way of speaking about God.

Yet most problems really did transcend Bush, and so reset accomplished little. Hugo Chávez is more hostile to America than ever, whether symbolically by accusing the Obama administration of spreading cancer among Latin American leaders or concretely by entertaining Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is no new warmth from Cuba or Nicaragua — as there never could have been from their Stalinist heads of state.

Putin has as much contempt for Obama as he did for Bush. Our policies remain the same: trying to encourage Russian reform without causing a war or neo-Soviet adventurism.

The decision to reach out to Assad with recognition and an embassy failed; Syria became more unhinged and violent, not less. The verdict is still out on the Arab Spring; the Obama administration stopped taking credit for it once the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood began its ascendance. The Palestinians are now talking of a third intifada, and they hope that, when the shooting starts, their new friend the United States will hector Israel in a way it did not under Bush.

Outreach to Iran was a disaster; the serial face-to-face talks and the quiet neglect of the Iranian dissidents did not work. Now we are reduced to the sort of catch-up sanctions that would have earned Bush the charge of warmongering from the Left. Unofficial US policy seems to be a silent hope that tiny Israel does the unthinkable that a huge United States would not, while Saudi Arabia expands its pipelines to nullify the value of the Strait of Hormuz in a way we are refusing to do at home with Keystone.

Obama likes Prime Minister Erdogan even more than he hates Prime Minister Netanyahu. But what he thinks the Israelis have done to the Palestinians pales in comparison to what he must know the Turks have done to the Kurds, Greeks, and Armenians. It is open to question whether Erdogan will be calmed by such affability or will find it useful should he wish to settle old scores with the Kurds, on Cyprus, or in the Aegean.

Lecturing China while borrowing ever more money from it does not work.

I don’t think Japan and South Korea feel any safer with Obama in office — despite claims of a new focus on Asia at the expense of old Europe. The more Obama talks of eliminating nuclear weapons, the more both these neighbors of North Korea will probably consider acquiring them.

There is no need to review the reset flip side of estrangement from the Czech Republic, Britain, Israel, and now Canada — allies who believe in staid things like democracy, human rights, and alliances in times of peril. It is hard to calibrate US policy toward the EU, since the entire enterprise is unraveling, and the Europeans seem puzzled that we are emulating the very failure they are learning from. Mexico is more violent and unstable than ever before, and more emboldened to sue US states in American courts of law. Fast and Furious promises not to deport any more illegal aliens, and the administration’s lawsuit against the state of Arizona did not have a warming effect on our relationship.

The second Obama idea was the dream of reenergizing the United Nations and working to eliminate all nuclear weapons. But the likelihood is that the atomic club will be larger, not smaller, when Obama leaves office. The madness of North Korea transcends the US presidency, although for now it is playing out in ridiculous matters of succession.

Obama claimed he was doing UN work in Libya; but in truth he exceeded a UN mandate for humanitarian help and no-fly zones by stealthily bombing “from behind.” How odd that by ignoring the US Congress and the War Powers Act and instead championing but not obeying the United Nations, Obama snubbed both in a way his cowboyish predecessor never had. Restricting oil leases on federal lands by 40 percent and stopping the Keystone pipeline did not translate into a gas-guzzling America’s doing its fair share to lower world oil prices and protect the global environment from careless new Third World exploration and exploitation.

Third, Obama promised to win the good war in Afghanistan, and to end the bad war in Iraq, in addition to junking or amending the supposedly unconstitutional and counterproductive war on terror. Here there is some confusion. He got out of Iraq, but on the Bush-Petraeus timetable long ago negotiated with the Iraqi government. In Afghanistan no one believes the situation is better — four commanders and three years after Bush left office. Obama tweaked the war on terror in cynical fashion, mixing euphemism and realpolitik. Rhetorically, we learned of overseas contingency operations and man-caused disasters, while mention of Islamic terrorism became taboo.

Yet Obama, in fact, embraced or expanded all of the Bush-Cheney protocols — from Guantanamo and tribunals to renditions and Predator drones — on the apparent tripartite and correct assumption that (1) these measures were both lawful and vital to the security of the United States; (2) opposition to them had been entirely partisan and would evaporate once he put his own brand upon them; and (3) the Republicans would be flummoxed, unsure whether to damn Obama for his blatant hypocrisy and the damage he had done through his earlier opportunistic attacks on the very policies he would come to expand — or to be relieved that a liberal Democrat was continuing the Bush war on terror and employed its tools, which brought such dividends as the end of bin Laden and the Predatorization of top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.

Did the Obama setbacks matter all that much? So far, in the very short term, perhaps not.

Few envisioned that the Arab world and the European Union in their own respective ways would implode, quite apart from anything the United States did. The recession has put China on the defensive, and heightened the contradictions between free markets and closed minds. Russia is in serial crises from demography to democracy. The tsunami reminded the world how vulnerable an aging and shrinking Japan really is.

Meanwhile, here in the US, fracking and horizontal drilling redefined our oil and gas outlook, despite, not because of, the Obama administration. The insolvency of Mediterranean Europe has taken attention from the near insolvency of the US Treasury. The EU pact, and styles of governance in China, Russia, and the Arab world, remind us that the US Constitution remains exceptional. And the stagnant American economy has muffled domestic objections to vast cutbacks in defense and our new follow-rather-than-lead foreign policy.

In other words, we are back to the deceptive quiet of a 1913, 1938, or 2000, consumed by internal problems, suspicious of the world abroad, assuming that foreigners’ challenges are worse than ours, and convinced that no one would be so stupid as to start a stupid war.

Let us hope no one does. But if someone should be so crazy, others might follow. Then we would learn that our old allies are now neutrals; our new friends are enemies; and the old deterrence will be as hard to regain as it was once to acquire.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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