Barack Obama’s Toothless and Feckless Foreign Policy

The President’s weakness, deeply rooted in failed past administrations, is a surreal disaster for America and the world

Obama Putin Assad

Illustration by Dale Stephanos

A month after the German surrender ending the First World War, American President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris to throngs of admirers. After four years of the most destructive war in human history, Europeans looked to Wilson to broker the peace. All over Europe there were parks, squares, streets and railway stations bearing his name. H.G. Wells described the scene in Paris on December 13, 1918 when the president entered the city. “He was transfigured in the eyes of men,” he wrote. “He ceased to be a common statesman; he became a Messiah.”

Like Woodrow Wilson, the arrival of President Barack Obama on the world stage was greeted with a fervor that bordered on religious worship. Despising President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” many looked to Mr. Obama to order the peace.

Like Wilson, candidate Obama had promised to transform international relations: hope would overcome defeatism, diplomacy would replace aggression, a revived United Nations would tame American unilateralism. Gushing at the prospect of an Obama White House, Harvard University’s Joseph Nye spoke for many: “It is difficult to think of any single act that would do more to restore America’s soft power than the election of Obama to the presidency.”

Now, after almost six years, it is difficult to think of a time when American power—soft or hard—was so inconsequential. Indeed, the gulf between Mr. Obama’s vision of the world and the world as we find it is staggering.

An Orthodox priest gestures with a stick as Maidan self-defence activists clash Kiev-1 volunteer battalion in Kiev. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

An Orthodox priest gestures with a stick as Maidan self-defence activists clash Kiev-1 volunteer battalion in Kiev. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

The Syrian regime commits war crimes with impunity, creating a refugee crisis not seen since the Second World War. In a spasm of aggression thought a relic of the Cold War, Russia swallows up Crimea and destabilizes eastern Ukraine. The Arab Spring devolves into an endless winter of sectarian violence. Whatever gains U.S. forces made in establishing liberal and humane governments in Afghanistan and Iraq have completely unraveled: security is worse than ever and the one tiny island of pro-American sentiment faces extinction, as Kurdish towns fall to a new strain of virulent jihad. The forces of radical Islamic extremism—supposedly “decimated” a few years ago—are resurgent and threatening governments across the globe.

Many events are beyond any president’s control. Certainly the pathologies that afflict much of the Islamic world are impossible for any nation to cure. And Mr. Obama inherited botched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that severely damaged America’s standing and security in the world.

Nevertheless, the alarming fact remains that Mr. Obama seems not to understand the relationship of power to diplomacy. His vision of foreign policy, immature from the start, appears incapable of rising beyond campaign bromides and false choices. No president has so openly rejected America’s role as “the indispensable nation” in world affairs. The combined result is a leadership vacuum being filled by terror and disorder.

A Peace to End All Peace

Despite his self-description as a “student of history,” Mr. Obama embodies the worst foreign policy impulses of some of America’s most deeply flawed presidents. Let’s begin with Woodrow Wilson, an East Coast intellectual with a liberal Presbyterian moralism. Wilson regarded European “power politics” with high-minded revulsion. He believed that a new community of nations, committed to diplomacy and moral suasion, could eliminate war.

‘The world is less violent than it has ever been,’ Mr. Obama told a gathering earlier this summer. ‘It is more tolerant than it has ever been.’ In political science jargon, this is neither idealism nor realism—not even foreign policy minimalism. It is surrealism. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

‘The world is less violent than it has ever been,’ Mr. Obama told a gathering earlier this summer. ‘It is more tolerant than it has ever been.’ In political science jargon, this is neither idealism nor realism—not even foreign policy minimalism. It is surrealism. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

“Wilson kept alive the hope that human society, despite the evidence, was getting better, that nations would one day live in harmony,” writes historian Margaret MacMillan. “In 1919, before disillusionment had set in, the world was more than ready to listen to him.”

Much of the world did listen, and the result was the hopelessly misguided Treaty of Versailles. Bearing Wilson’s imprint, the treaty created a feckless League of Nations that sought to end power politics through treaties, arms reductions and a global “brotherhood of man.”

Disillusionment set in almost instantly, as a militant and vengeful Germany waited in the wings. As George F. Kennan described it in his classic work, American Diplomacy, “This was the sort of peace you got when … you indulged yourself in the colossal conceit of thinking that you could suddenly make international life over into what you believed to be your own image.”

Woodrow Wilson’s Ghost Goes to Moscow

That’s a fair critique of the Obama doctrine, especially as it’s been applied to Russia. The diplomatic “reset” with Vladimir Putin focused on offering incentives to Moscow—giving up a missile-defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic—to achieve better relations with a demonstrably aggressive autocrat. Instead, it has produced the most dangerous international environment with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Obama’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, channeling Wilson’s ghost, was stunned by Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty earlier in the year: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

A man throws a Molotov cocktail in Kiev.

A man throws a Molotov cocktail in Kiev. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

This childlike view of international relations was reinforced by Mr. Obama in a March 27 speech to the European Union. Although the president mentioned the importance of NATO to European security, he then made NATO irrelevant to the crisis. “Of course Ukraine is not a member of NATO, in part because of its close and complex history with Russia,” he said. “Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force.”

Wilson wanted “open diplomacy” to replace the diplomatic intrigues of the European powers. Announcing in advance to an aggressor that there will be no military response to further aggression is about as open as it gets. Mr. Putin has gotten the message: ignoring U.S. economic sanctions, he continues to supply separatist rebels with sophisticated arms and has massed another 20,000 Russian troops along the Ukraine border.

The Hubris of FDR and Obama

Mr. Obama’s foreign policy idealism is aggravated by his hubris—not the maligned Texas swagger of a Mr. Bush, but rather a fierce and narrow political ambition that ultimately endangers America’s national security interests.

In this, he walks in the steps of one of his political heroes, Franklin Roosevelt. FDR’s leadership during the Second World War is rightly praised: he presided over the transformation of America’s anemic economy into an “arsenal of democracy.”

Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Nouri Al-Maliki. Photos by Getty Images)

Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Nouri Al-Maliki. (Photos by Getty Images)

But Roosevelt’s pre-war leadership was a disaster. Terrified of losing domestic support for his “New Deal,” he ignored the rising threat of international fascism. He gladly signed the neutrality acts of the 1930s, making it illegal for the United States to offer assistance to any combatant in a European war—no matter what the circumstances. Perfectly in step with the nation’s isolationist mood, he denounced the idea that America would side with the democracies in a European war as “100 percent wrong.”

It is often forgotten that FDR approved the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement—the diplomatic betrayal that delivered Czechoslovakia into Nazi hands and set the stage for the Second World War. While Winston Churchill denounced the pact as an “unmitigated defeat” for the cause of peace, Roosevelt asked Hitler for a guarantee that Germany would not attack other nations of Europe. (Hitler mocked the request during a Nazi party rally.)

Thus the devil in Berlin was emboldened, and the decade of appeasement reached its nadir.

Like Roosevelt, the hubris of Mr. Obama consists in his inclination to obscure unpleasant international realities for the sake of his political ambitions. For Mr. Obama, political success (re-election) depended on repudiating the foreign policies of his predecessor, regardless of the strategic consequences. Like FDR, he refuses to expend political capital to challenge a “war-weary” nation to exert its influence where it is desperately needed.

The Debacle in the Middle East

Hence the president’s catastrophic policies in the Middle East. Take Libya. The toppling of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, involving no U.S. ground troops and no loss of American lives, was trumpeted as the prudent alternative to Bush-style intervention. Mr. Obama called the military action “a lesson in what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one.”

A child sleeps as Iraqi Yazidis take refuge in Dohuk. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

A child sleeps as Iraqi Yazidis take refuge in Dohuk. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

The lesson, instead, is that the Obama administration will compromise national security in order to proclaim a foreign policy success. There is no other explanation for its clumsy deceptions in the days after the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Insisting the attack was not premeditated, the administration blamed a “very offensive video” for insulting Islam and stirring up resentments around the Arab world.

The act of terror, we were told, did not reflect growing al Qaeda influence in Libya because of American neglect. We now know all of this was a falsehood, maintained to serve a presidential election campaign. Today, Libya is in meltdown — its government in disarray, it offers safe harbor for jihadi terrorists as weapons and fighters from the former regime destabilize sub-Saharan Africa. 

Now take Syria. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the president told reporters two years ago this month. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

In the end, Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people changed nothing. The Obama administration backed away from its threat to punish Mr. Assad militarily, leaving it to Russia—Mr. Assad’s most important ally—to orchestrate a deal to seize and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons

The White House says it was the prospect of American force that caused the Syrian leader to give up his chemical stockpile. Not likely. Secretary of State Kerry telegraphed to the regime the extent of the U.S. military threat, promising “an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” No administration in American history has described the use of U.S. military power in such diminutive terms. No dictator in history would have been frightened by it.

Mr. Assad has not been deterred from committing further war crimes—he is simply using other weapons of terror and destruction to remain in power (and probably still uses chemical weapons). The result, after three years of U.S. inaction, is that the conflict has metastasized into a regional disaster: 170,000 Syrians are dead, and 9 million have abandoned their homes, including 2.5 million who have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community carry their children as they cross the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community carry their children as they cross the Iraqi-Syrian border. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

The Tragedy of Iraq

Let’s now consider Iraq. U.S. intelligence officials had been warning the administration for months that jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) were exploiting the chaos in Syria—they now control about a third of that country—and exporting it to Iraq. Their stunning success in seizing swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq could have been prevented.

Yet Mr. Obama—who failed to reach an agreement with Iraq to leave a contingent of U.S. forces to ensure stability—lays all blame at the feet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his divisive leadership. The United States, Mr. Obama says, “is simply not going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together.” It is hard to conceive of a more soothing message to the jihadists in the region.

In addition to major cities and towns, ISIS extremists are seizing dams, refineries and oil fields. This gives them access to cash and the ability to coerce unwilling populations into submission. Their aim is the establishment of a totalitarian, pre-modern caliphate, extending across the region. We face the gruesome prospect of Iraq—a nation for which the United States has sacrificed blood and treasure—forcibly absorbed into this dystopian future.

History will severely judge an American president who cannot or will not muster an alliance of nations to defeat this malignancy in the heart of the Middle East. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

History will severely judge an American president who cannot or will not muster an alliance of nations to defeat this malignancy in the heart of the Middle East. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

It is already happening. ISIS forces have captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and the nation’s largest dam, which provides water and power to millions. They continue to seize cities and towns across western and northern Iraq, giving ethnic and religious minorities the same choice: leave, convert to Islam or be executed. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are being driven from their homes. Only days ago, the extremists have taken over Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, forcing its nearly 60,000 residents to flee.

Yet none of this has created in President Obama a sense of urgency. Only the latest crisis in northwest Iraq, where tens of thousands of Yezidis are trapped in the peaks of Mount Sinjar, has prodded the president to action. Facing starvation, yet fearing death if they descend into areas controlled by ISIS, the Yezidis have become a wretched symbol of human suffering and American impotence. In a token gesture of humanitarian intervention, U.S. air strikes—no doubt “incredibly small and limited”—began last week. Even so, when the Pentagon was asked this week if there were plans to actually prevent a genocide of the Yezidis and create a corridor to safety, the answer was the usual prevarication: “We’re assessing the situation.”

Despite the growing threat to U.S. security, as well as the appalling level of human suffering, the president has yet to offer a strategic vision for actually defeating the extremists. Several hundred U.S. “advisors” have been dispatched, but to no visible effect. A targeted, sustained and punishing air assault—the one action that could put the fear of God into the jihadists—is not even being contemplated. History will severely judge an American president who cannot or will not muster an alliance of nations to defeat this malignancy in the heart of the Middle East.

Power and Diplomacy 

In all this President Obama betrays his fundamental error, both intellectual and moral—the delusion that war is an unmitigated evil, easily avoidable, and that peace is the natural order of the universe.

Writing during the 1940s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr assailed these “moralistic illusions” in his book Christianity and Power Politics. Modern liberalism, he said, has forgotten that the failure to use power effectively, to protect civilization, is a moral failure of the highest order. “In this liberalism there is little understanding of the depth to which human malevolence may sink and the heights to which malignant power may rise,” he wrote. “Some easy and vapid escape is sought from the terrors and woes of a tragic era.”

For most of his presidency Mr. Obama has sought an easy way out of the terrors of our age. His vapid foreign policy slogan was proudly announced on Air Force One: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Paralysis, however, is not the same thing as prudence. In this case it has invited a storm of violence, barbarism and insecurity.

Rebel fighters from the Islamic Front hold a position during clashes with militants of the Islamic State (IS). (Photo Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Rebel fighters from the Islamic Front hold a position during clashes with militants of the Islamic State (IS). (Photo Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images)

A genocidal Islamist movement sweeps through Syria and Iraq, and the administration is “watching these events carefully.” Christian communities throughout Africa and the Middle East experience persecution not seen since the days of the Romans, and the leader of the free world remains in denial. “The world is less violent than it has ever been,” Mr. Obama told a gathering earlier this summer. “It is more tolerant than it has ever been.” In political science jargon, this is neither idealism nor realism—not even foreign policy minimalism. It is surrealism.

Thus the president persists with his diplomatic mantra: “There is no military solution to this problem.” What Mr. Obama fails to grasp is that any achievement toward peace and democracy—any diplomatic triumph—depends on the projection of American military power. The defeat of Nazism, the transformation of Japan and Germany into liberal democracies, the rescue of South Korea from communist tyranny, the liberation of Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union—none of it is conceivable apart from the credible threat of America’s armed forces.

Great statesmen, Democrat and Republican, have understood this political reality. They did not always authorize force to counter tyranny, but they used the threat of American hard power to support soft power strategies that worked. Harry Truman did this during the 1948 Berlin crisis when—ignoring advice to abandon the city—he ordered a massive, round-the-clock airlift to keep the West Berliners alive in the face of a Soviet blockade. Truman, the architect of NATO, knew that the preservation of democracy in West Berlin was the key to protecting freedom in the rest of Europe.

Ronald Reagan accomplished something similar when he vigorously supported the Solidarity movement in communist Poland in the 1980s. During the long years of martial law, the United States delivered a steady supply of covert assistance to help sustain the pro-democracy forces. As the Soviets struggled to match Reagan’s military build-up, the democratic revolution in Poland became the first crack in the Berlin Wall.

“The Polish nation, speaking through Solidarity, has provided one of the brightest, bravest moments of modern history,” Reagan told the American people in December 1981. “The torch of liberty is hot. It warms those who hold it high. It burns those who try to extinguish it.”

Mr. Obama, haunted by the demons of Vietnam and Iraq, cannot seem to decide what to do with the torch of liberty. And his ambivalence communicates American weakness. The problem is that the dark and demonic forces of this world are not in retreat. They thrive on democratic weakness. They advance when they sense a lack of political and spiritual resolve.

What power on earth can keep them at bay? Without its champion, the United States, liberty’s torch threatens to become a smoldering wick, overwhelmed in a world of shadows and fog.

Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City and the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West (Lexington Press, 2014; josephloconte.com)