The Obama chapter in American foreign policy ends like the climax of an action movie—with a fireball growing in the distance and filling the screen as a man in silhouette approaches in slow motion and then veers off camera. Barack Obama has set the Middle East on fire, and now it’s spreading.
The Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran has emboldened the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, which now makes war openly in four Arab states (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen) and is a growing threat to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The deal with Tehran that Obama boasts of as his signature foreign policy initiative guarantees, as the president himself acknowledged, that Iran will have an industrial-scale nuclear weapons program within 15 years.
After a 40-year absence from the Middle East, Russia has returned to the region, where it bombs Syria’s schools and hospitals as America and Europe watch helplessly. Washington’s traditional regional allies are scrambling to adjust to the new reality, which for the likes of Israel, Jordan, and Turkey means an opportunistic power on their borders that is allied with their existential enemies.
For Europe, the millions seeking refuge from the conflagration are agents of potential instability on the continent in the years to come; some in their midst are terrorists plain and simple. In just four years, or one presidential term, a civil uprising that started in Syria became a great Middle Eastern war over a host of sectarian, religious, and political hostilities dating back centuries.
Critics and even admirers of the president say that Syria will be a stain on his record. But that’s not how Obama sees it. The death and suffering of so many undoubtedly pains him, as he says. He says he wonders if he could have done anything else. Of course he could have, but he believed he had better reasons not to.
There is probably no other president in the post-World War II period who would not have committed significant resources to toppling Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, by 2013, all of Obama’s national security cabinet advised him to support the rebels. They believed that the United States had, first, a stake in helping to end a humanitarian catastrophe and, no less important, a vital interest in preserving a 70-year-old order that the conflict threatened to undo.
America’s Cold War strategy was relatively simple in outline: We would preserve stability on the European continent, contain Moscow, and protect the resource-rich Persian Gulf, which ensured the free flow of trade on which American prosperity depended. Obama disregarded those principles. Assad’s war sent millions to a quickly overwhelmed Europe. Putin’s gambit in Syria eliminated Israel’s air superiority in the eastern Mediterranean and positioned Russia on NATO’s southern border. Iran’s harassment of the U.S. Navy in the Gulf signaled to the oil-producing Arab states that since the nuclear deal was more important to Obama than American prestige and the safety of American servicemen and women, they were on their own.
By normal bipartisan American standards, Obama’s foreign policy record is disastrous. But that’s not how he sees it. For Obama and his closest aides, the last seven years represent a revolution, a transformative period in American foreign policy engineered by a transformative figure.
Obama’s foreign policy issued in part from his understanding of global realities but more from his interpretation of the American character. He believed that Americans tend to make a mess of things around the world. Obama is like a narrator in a Graham Greene novel; in our relations with the rest of humanity, as he sees it, we are 300 million naïfs abroad, whose intentions may be good but who lack the tragic sense that the rest of the world feels in its bones. Americans, until Obama came along, had been in the grip of a triumphalist fantasy—American exceptionalism—thinking there was nothing wrong with the world that couldn’t be fixed by pointing our guns at it. A shoot-first America was especially dangerous in the conflict-prone Middle East, where everything looks like a nail to a nation that thinks it’s a hammer. For Obama, it was vitally important to get the country he was elected to lead off of what he called a “perpetual war footing.”
The sticking point for Obama was that the character of the American people determines the nature of our foreign policy and the establishment that embodies and implements it. In other words, almost everyone around him, even his own cabinet officials, was part of the problem. Of course Leon Panetta and David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton would argue that he should back the Syrian rebels and obviously John Kerry would think he should hit Assad for crossing the red line that Obama himself had drawn against the use of chemical weapons. “The Blob,” as Obama lieutenant Ben Rhodes called the Washington policy establishment, is incapable of thinking anything else.
“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow,” Obama told the Atlantic magazine. “It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.”
As Obama explained, when he declined to hit Assad for crossing the red line, he tore up the playbook. It not only liberated Obama but was a first step in freeing America from its dangerous habit of mind. Whenever that primordial lizard brain surfaced again to argue for force, Obama pushed back. Indeed, this White House argued not that the United States wouldn’t or shouldn’t do things but that it couldn’t do them.
Sure, it would be great to protect Syrian civilians from Assad and Putin. But Russia’s air defense systems are really powerful, so we can’t set up no-fly zones to protect them. Obviously the Pentagon has solutions for Russian systems such as the S-300—like hitting their radar, command-and-control facilities, or missile batteries—in order to set up a no-fly zone. But Obama wanted America to get used to not thinking of doing things he believed we shouldn’t do.
So there was nothing to be done about the war in Syria. And there was nothing to be done about Iran’s nuclear weapons program except sign an imperfect deal, because the only other choice was war. There was nothing to be done about Putin when his soldiers seized Crimea, then Donbas, then brought down a passenger jet over Ukraine, or when he sheltered Edward Snowden and had his secret police beat up an American diplomat.
Obama’s foreign policy, in the end, was not primarily about the rest of the world—it was about transforming the character of America. So where are we eight years on? Gelded, as he intended.
Consider that for several months now, the country has been consumed with reports of Putin’s cyberwar against American political institutions. It’s become embarrassing to watch this frenzied chorus of politicians and the press beating their chests and rending their clothes for fear that Putin has made us all vulnerable—as if America were some post-Soviet backwater incapable of taking care of its own business, quietly and with dispatch. America before Obama knew how to take care of itself in such confrontations. Let’s hope we can recover that confidence.