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As Obama's Clock Winds Down, Revisionist Powers Pounce
US President Barack Obama (L) speaking during a press conference in Hangzhou, China, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) speaking during a press conference in Davao City, the Philippines, September 5, 2016. (SAUL LOEB,MANMAN DEJETO/AFP/Getty Imag

As Obama's Clock Winds Down, Revisionist Powers Pounce

Walter Russell Mead

Hillary Clinton has swept her debate series with Donald Trump, and voters seem to like Trump less the harder they look at him. But as Clinton surely understands, even as she approaches the White House, the global scene is getting darker. This morning, we saw a glimpse of that world, as one of America’s longest-standing allies in Asia turned its back on the United States and embraced China:

In a state visit aimed at cozying up to Beijing as he pushes away from Washington, the Philippine President announced his military and economic "separation" from the United States.

"America has lost now. I've realigned myself in your ideological flow," he told business leaders in Beijing on Thursday. "And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It's the only way."

As usual, the Obama administration was caught off guard and flat-footed. John Kirby, the spokesman for the State Department, said the move was “inexplicably at odds” with the U.S.-Philippine relationship. “We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from us,” Kirby said. “It’s not clear to us exactly what that means and all its ramifications.”

Kirby is right that the outlook in the Philippines is murky; lots of Filipino officials are as appalled by their president’s remarks as anybody in Foggy Bottom. But what isn’t murky at all is that President Obama’s faltering foreign policy has taken another serious hit. It is hard to think of another American president whose foreign policy initiatives failed as badly or as widely as Obama’s. The reconciliation with the Sunni world? The reset with Russia? Stabilizing the Middle East by tilting toward Iran? The Libya invasion? The Syria abstention? The ‘pivot to Asia’ was supposed to be the centerpiece of Obama’s global strategy; instead the waning months of the Obama administration have seen an important U.S. ally pivot toward China in the most public and humiliating way possible.

Duterte clearly thinks that humiliating Obama in this way is a solid career move. He certainly believes that China will support him against the critics at home and abroad who will wring their hands over his shift. He presumably has had some assurances from his Chinese hosts that if he commits his cause to them, they will back him to the hilt.

This points to a broader problem: Obama’s tortuous efforts to balance a commitment to human rights and the niceties of American liberal ideology with a strong policy in defense of basic American security interests have made the world less safe for both human rights and for American security. As the revisionist powers (Russia, China, and Iran) gain ground, foreign leaders feel less and less need to pay attention to American sermons about human rights and the rule of law. Death squads and extra-judicial executions on a large scale: the Americans will lecture you but China will still be your friend. Barrel bombing hospitals in Aleppo? The Russians won’t just back you; they will help you to do it. Obama’s foreign policy is making the world safer for people who despise and trample on the very values that Obama hoped his presidency would advance. His lack of strategic insight and his inability to grasp the dynamics of world power politics have opened the door to a new generation of authoritarian figures in alliance with hostile great powers. Unintentionally, and with the best of intentions, he has opened the doors to the demons of Hell, and the darkest forces in the human spirit have much greater scope and much more power today than they did when he took the oath of office back in 2009.

Now in the final days of Obama’s presidency, Russia, Iran, and China are all stepping up their game. Putin has been humiliating and outfoxing Obama at one end of Eurasia; Iran has gone from routing Obama at the bargaining table to enabling its proxies in Yemen to fire on American ships. Xi now has a triumph of his own, with one of America’s oldest Asian allies insulting Obama at official events. Clearly, America’s opponents (and some of our allies) have reached the conclusion that this particular American administration is unable or unwilling to respond forcefully to provocations.

This isn’t just a painful and embarrassing time for President Obama; it is a dangerous time for world peace. Secretary Clinton is well aware of just how damaging the Filipino defection is in Asia; she helped develop the Obama administration’s Asia strategy and she knows that China’s challenge has just grown much more dangerous. She knows what a wreck the Middle East has become, and she is well aware that Obama will hand her a region that is in much worse shape than it was when Obama took office. She knows how Putin made a patsy and a laughingstock of Obama around the world, and she knows that Obama’s efforts to stabilize the Middle East by conciliating Iran have had just the opposite effect. She knows that even as Donald Trump’s poorly led, poorly conceived electoral campaign weakens, America’s enemies abroad are using every day of Obama’s tenure in office to weaken the foundations of America’s power around the world.

We do not know what other plans our opponents have to take advantage of Obama’s shortcomings as the clock slowly runs down on his time in the White House. Putin clearly hoped that his interference could muddy the waters of the American presidential race; the Russians believe that Trump is if anything less capable than Obama, and that a Trump presidency would give Russia four more years to work at dismantling American power and the European Union. As Putin now contemplates the likely frustration of those hopes, he is likely to think harder about how he can use the time remaining on Obama’s watch to further weaken the United States and erode its alliance system.

Should Secretary Clinton make it to the White House, her first and biggest job will be to stop and then reverse the deterioration in America’s global position that her predecessor permitted. She will have to convince both friends and foes that the President of the United States is no longer a punching bag, and that the United States of America is back on the stage. She will need, and she will deserve, the support of patriotic Americans in both political parties as she undertakes this necessary mission. President Obama’s mismanagement of foreign affairs is creating a genuine international emergency; the White House and Congress will have to work together to restore American prestige and stop the slide toward chaos and war.

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