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In recent days, I’ve posted a couple of installments in my countdown of Barack Obama’s worst foreign policy failures as president. Today, the final entries: the two events that I consider examples of the president’s foreign policy leadership at its worst.
This one leaves a particular stench in my nostrils, and not just because it follows Obama’s serial sucking up to Putin’s hateful regime, all in the hopes of striking a nuclear disarmament deal that could only please the Union of Concerned Scientists and Code Pink. Letting Putin get away with territorial (and literal) murder is also historically offensive, because it’s happening in the region that suffered from appeasement at its most craven in the 1930s and from the creation of the Iron Curtain in the 1940s: Eastern Europe. Putin’s eaten Crimea; he’s about to devour Eastern Ukraine. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are clearly next on Putin’s list, just as they were on Stalin’s after the Nazi-Soviet Pact partitioned Poland in 1939. Only Putin doesn’t need a Hitler to stand by and watch this time; he has Obama.
Yet none of this would have happened (and Iraq would not be happening now) if it weren’t for the Number One foreign policy disaster of Obama’s presidency.
This is a blunder that arguably sums up every one of Obama’s weaknesses in conducting foreign policy. But it’s also one that set the stage for his failure in Ukraine and what’s happening in Iraq. Indeed, it may be a blunder for the ages, far outweighing George H.W. Bush’s failure to drive to Baghdad in the First Gulf War or his son’s failure to fire generals soon enough in the Second Gulf War.
Syria has shown us the many faces of Barack Obama.
First we had Obama the deer in the headlights, doing nothing for a year after the revolt against Bashar al-Assad broke out in April 2011 and people started dying—a period when there was a real opportunity to shift the balance of forces in the Middle East.
Then we had Obama the redliner in August 2012, promising swift action if Assad used chemical weapons against the rebels … then doing nothing when they were used.
Then came Obama the unilateralist, deciding he had to take military action so he wouldn’t look like a prevaricating poltroon. This was immediately followed by Obama the devious, leaving ultimate responsibility for the decision to Congress.
By then, of course, half a million people were dead and Al Qaeda was left to take over leadership of the rebellion against Assad.
Then came Obama, president of the Vladimir Putin fan club, gratefully taking up the Russian leader’s offer to broker the handover of Assad’s chemical weapons stash because it got Obama off the hook for military action. It also taught Putin that if he wanted to start reassembling the broken bits of the old Soviet Union, starting with Ukraine, Obama wouldn’t raise a hand to stop him.
The chemical weapons issue has also been a useful distraction for Obama from what he’s really let loose in Syria.
Future historians will compare the Syrian civil war in 2011-2014 to the Spanish Civil War 1936-9, in which an unhappy country was turned into a charnel house in a proxy war between two ideological monoliths, while the western democracies sat by and let it happen.
The monoliths then were communism versus fascism; in today’s Middle East, it’s Sunni versus Shia, with Iran leading the Shia crusade to topple Sunni hegemony in the region, and the Saudis and Gulf states arming Al Qaeda-linked groups like ISIL to fight back in the name of the caliphate. That conflict has now spilled across the border into Iraq; it threatens to spill into Turkey and Jordan; it may still engulf Saudi Arabia itself.
Obama’s feckless policy toward Syria has in effect triggered the Middle East equivalent of the Thirty Years War, a religious war that grinds on and on and draws one state after another into its maw, while creating millions of refugees and miles of mass graves.
Let’s just hope it’s not the equivalent of the Hundred Years War. Although, were that to be the case, Obama may have made up his mind on the Keystone Pipeline by the time it was over.