Wall Street Journal

Obama Needed More Than Translators at the U.N.

Distinguished Fellow
Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World

President Obama's long explanation of his policies at the United Nations on Tuesday weaved between responses to criticism of his policies from first one side, then the other. Little wonder, for as he approached the podium, an unwelcome question hung in the air: What do other countries make of his foreign policy? The odd part is that no one raises this question more often in the fifth year of his presidency.

President Obama mused wistfully on ABC's "This Week" earlier this month about how the Iranians might interpret his dealings with Russia regarding Syria. On that same Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry aired his concern that "hollow words in the conduct of international affairs" might lead others to mistake America's resolve.

The unwelcome question stalking President Obama doesn't stem from the administration's performance over the past several weeks, which Mr. Obama conceded in the ABC interview has not been "smooth, disciplined and linear," nor can it be put to rest by a U.N. speech. Rather, the mystification of America's allies and enemies alike over U.S. intentions is rooted in the policies of several years.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes neatly, if unintentionally, framed the issue on Sept. 5 in a news briefing at the G-20 economic summit in St. Petersburg. "The U.S. for decades has played the role of undergirding the global security architecture and enforcing international norms," Mr. Rhodes said, warning that "we do not want to send a message that the United States is getting out of that business in any way."

But wait. Hasn't America's withdrawal from the burdens of leadership been the Obama administration's message from the beginning? And hadn't Mr. Obama's U.N. audience on Tuesday already heard it?

Indeed, when, after five years in office, Mr. Obama at the U.N. says, "The danger for the world is that the United States . . . may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill," some foreign leaders may think they know who the source of such "disengagement" is. Some may wonder why he thinks that other nations are not eager to fill the vacuum in a harmful way.

Doubts about America's leadership echo in the Middle East and elsewhere. Since 2009, President Obama has assiduously courted Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visiting there early, meeting him often and touting their friendship. But as Mr. Obama temporized in late August about launching airstrikes to punish the Assad regime—Turkey's enemy—for its use of chemical warfare in Syria, one of Mr. Erdogan's closest advisers was not admiring. "The world has a leadership problem," said Yigit Bulut. "Today there are two and a half leaders in the world. One is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the second is Putin, and the other half is Obama."

And that's an American ally speaking. The Iranians know that Assad's chemical attacks offered Mr. Obama the opportunity to strike at Iran's successful geostrategic rescue mission in Syria—and that Obama squirmed out of it. So Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said on Sept. 17, in a meeting with Revolutionary Guard commanders, that Tehran can show "heroic leniency" and "flexibility" in dealing with the West on the Iranian nuclear program. The ayatollah has taken the measure of the American who ought to pose the greatest obstacle to a nuclear-armed Iran.

Our closest Western allies are disillusioned by what they see in the White House. The British Parliament balked on Aug. 29 at President Obama's once-planned attack on Syria. "Is not the real reason we are here today not the horror at these [chemical] weapons," a Labor opposition-party member said, "but as a result of the American president having foolishly drawn a red line, so that he is now in the position of either having to attack or face humiliation?"

It took time to win such disdain. For five years, the Obama administration has been trying to edge America off the Middle East stage. Having declared his intention to leave forces in Iraq, Mr. Obama let the U.S. become embroiled with the Iraqis in basing-rights disputes that would necessitate a total American withdrawal. Mr. Obama once maintained that Afghanistan was the "necessary" war, and then that it was necessary to both reinforce that war with a military "surge"—and to withdraw. Ending wars, not winning the peace, has been his call.

Mr. Obama has been especially hands-off over the Middle East revolts called the Arab Spring. At their onset, the president believed that "these revolutions were organic ones and that organics ones are the best." In the best revolutions, he held, outside parties play no role. So Mr. Obama did nothing to support Iranians rebelling in 2009 against the ayatollahs, and he first offered rhetorical support, later withdrawn, for both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (who had long aided America's regional agenda) and Mr. Mubarak's elected Muslim Brotherhood successor. Iranian liberals and all sides in Egypt disparage Mr. Obama now.

Only French and British pressure over Moammar Gadhafi's bloodletting in Libya stirred President Obama to action in 2011. The administration bragged of "leading from behind" as NATO bombed Libya. In Syria, chemical weapons, not the "narrow self-interest" of geostrategic concerns, moved him to near-action.

Taken together, Mr. Obama's policies suggest to many this message: We may stir for international causes, but we don't see in this region American national concerns worth the cost of defending. Since World War II, defending significant Western interests in key regions had been a main American foreign-policy role. America did not "undergird global security architecture," in Mr. Rhodes's description, so much as unabashedly support critical Western interests against hostile forces. That is what the world sees waning.

In briefly urging attacks on Syria, Mr. Kerry evoked late-1930s Europe and the costs of appeasement, and he said this was a "Munich moment." By citing Munich, Mr. Kerry reminded us that sham international agreements pushed by war-weary nations eager to avoid the main issues in critical regions won't stop aggressors.

The Munich agreement proved unworthy of the paper it was printed on. In President Obama's U.N. audience sat many who must suspect that the current U.S.-Russia deal may prove the same. And now this week comes the stirring of an American bargain with Iran.