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The Consequences of a Halfway Presidency

Hillel Fradkin & Lewis Libby

During Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, with its “year of action” theme, President Obama trumpeted his three main initiatives in the Middle East—the Syrian Geneva conference, Iranian nuclear negotiations and Israeli-Palestinian talks. But he left out one detail: He doesn’t really expect them to succeed.

In all three cases, as Mr. Obama admits in an interview for an article in the Jan. 27 New Yorker magazine, the chances of achieving his ends are less than 50/50. Invoking Sisyphus from Greek mythology, the president says: “We may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.”

In his State of the Union, the president cited John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s willingness to negotiate with enemies. Yet he did not echo either president’s vibrant assertion of American strength and resolve. Instead, Mr. Obama returned to his mantra that America is “ending” wars by withdrawing from them. This rhetorical sleight of hand is unlikely to impress our Middle Eastern friends or foes. What a contrast with Kennedy’s “bear any burden” Cold War call to arms and Reagan’s flat-out challenge to the Soviets, summing up his strategy as: “We win, they lose.”

Some months back, an adviser to Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Mr. Obama as “half a leader.” In the Capitol on Tuesday night and in the New Yorker, Mr. Obama seemed to embrace this view of his leadership—projecting limitations more than confidence, and publicly accepting halfway goals with half a prospect of success and half a chance of being crushed.

As the comment by Mr. Erdogan’s adviser suggests, the Middle East has taken Mr. Obama’s measure and found him less than intimidating. No wonder:

  • On Afghanistan, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent memoir revealed, Mr. Obama’s commitment to his own troop surge was only halfhearted. Offering half the troops requested by the Pentagon, the president also announced their exit.
  • On Syria, too, Mr. Obama pushed himself halfway up the hill, first waffling, then declaring that President Bashar Assad must go, then promising arms to rebels, then proclaiming a redline if Assad used chemical weapons. But Mr. Obama delayed, redefined or evaded all of his pronouncements, and soon was in effect negotiating with Assad.
  • On Iraq, Mr. Obama declared his intention to leave U.S. troops and then, by making only half an effort, allowed negotiations to flounder and thus a withdrawal was compelled.
  • On Iran, after declaring Tehran’s uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons acquisition unacceptable, the president has implicitly accepted Iranian nuclear activities that previously were banned, and set a course that has left the region convinced that sooner or later Iran will be only a turn of a screw from having a nuclear bomb.

In likening America’s role to Sisyphus’s predicament, Mr. Obama invokes a startling image of American futility and lack of vision. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to painfully push uphill a rock that was predestined to roll back to the bottom. The mythical Sisyphus had to endure this torture, but national leaders are expected to find a new, better way of coping with challenges. Reagan inherited economic stagflation, and a nation only five years removed from 50,000 deaths and defeat in Vietnam. He negotiated with the Soviets, but only after re-establishing American strength and drive.

Not since Jimmy Carter lamented American “malaise” has a president so readily publicized an image of U.S. hopelessness. At least President Carter was hoping to stir America to action. President Obama implicitly suggests that the U.S. would be better off not trying at all: Following the logic of his Greek-myth comparison, the United States is only at risk of being crushed because it pushes the stone uphill. Little wonder that the Saudis, losing faith in the U.S., recently rejected taking their turn serving in a revolving U.N. Security Council seat.

The Obama administration offers two-and-a-half justifications for its halfway policies. First, in the New Yorker article, presidential aide Ben Rhodes is quoted warning that man may alter history but cannot have confidence in improving it. “There are currents in history and you have to figure out how to move them in one direction or another,” Mr. Rhodes says, but “you can’t necessarily determine the final destination.”

The second justification is that the Middle East abounds with conflict. Mr. Obama cites the region’s “profound” Sunni and Shiite Muslim sectarian schism, directed or abetted by competing states. He notes the dangers of failed or dysfunctional states, and the warlords and terrorists vying to control resources, populations and territory. He warns of an Iran “funding terrorist organizations . . . trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries and . . . developing a nuclear weapon.”

Amid such regional contention, Mr. Obama says, the best hope—in Syria, for instance—is for the U.S. to work with “the state actors who have invested so much” in keeping Assad in power, like Russia and Iran. “It would be profoundly in the interests of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shiites weren’t intent on killing each other,” the president says wistfully, or if “Iran were to operate in a responsible fashion.”

But Mr. Obama is largely silent on why states promoting disorder would suddenly abandon their course as we proclaim our willingness to pursue—and accept—halfway measures. No wonder governments in the region, including U.S. allies, doubt Mr. Obama’s leadership and commitment.

Unlike Sisyphus, America’s antagonists are not gods and—unless Mr. Obama implicitly believes in American guilt—no sin of ours condemns us to futility. Greek mythology abounds with heroes whose stories are ones of daring and accomplishment. It’s a pity the president has chosen as his model one of the bleakest tales of them all.

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