The Obama Administration’s foreign policy has gone through three major phases in the last six years.
First came the campaign-inflected moment of soaring, post-Bush, post-power, post-everything rhetoric and personal hubris. It was a time when seemingly rational people felt that the sheer force of Barack Obama’s personality, his historic position as the first black President, and his staggering intellect would fundamentally reshape the world in his image. It was the era in which the Nobel Committee defined the Peace Prize down. Miracles and wonders awaited us; the carefully engineered hatred of George W. Bush was a great political trick, but it relied on Obama actually delivering a safer, more stable, more prosperous world.
So while this President looked away from movements for freedom in Venezuela, Iran and elsewhere, the one constant every bad actor in the world could rely on was simple: Barack Obama would withdraw American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and would lead world affairs through moral suasion, intellectual firepower, and the promise of assembling coalitions before taking action.
It was a period bounded by his Berlin campaign speech and the death of Osama bin Laden. This was the window where Barack Obama made full use of the military and intelligence machine George Bush crafted in the days after 9/11. He deployed them in the pursuit of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Somali pirates and a host of other targets, not because he was brave, but because it was easy.
The new intelligence tools, and the ability to deliver death from whatever Reaper or Predator was on-station kept him from the mess and trouble of interrogations and captivity for the bad guys. (We’re closing GITMO, right? Right?) It was antiseptic, remote, and perfectly suited to his desire to never display anything like the hated Bush swagger.
The second phase was the period from the death of Bin Laden to Benghazi. This was as close as he got to Bush-like swagger, running endless victory laps over nailing Bin Laden’s hide to the barn, which was a tailor-made campaign credential when he needed it most. Iraq, which still enjoyed an American presence, and Afghanistan, where American forces were prosecuting an aggressive (if grinding and costly) effort against Al Qaida and the Taliban, were both less demanding of attention. By the close of this phase, there were signs that the Arab Spring might turn into something less felicitous than Obama’s early spin indicated.
This era came to a messy, tragic end on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya. When the world feels like it can sack an American embassy, murder American diplomatic personnel, and do so without meaningful fear of consequences, it’s the President who is to blame. Only the massive, backbreaking efforts of his media enablers (looking at you, Candy Crowley) let him skate and push giving even the most limited answers back past the election.
This final phase has gotten even messier. The bad actors of this world have seen all Barack Obama’s cards, and they know on his best day he can’t bluff his way past an opponent holding a pair of twos. They know his soaring rhetoric is rarely backed up by action or force of arms unless it meets his specific political criteria. Since Benghazi, Barack Obama hasn’t had a good day on the foreign policy front. Egypt is mired in a post-coup economic and political quagmire. Libya has fallen to the Islamist horde, who are holding pool parties at what was our Embassy. Syria has devolved from mere oppression to a human-rights tragedy nearly unprecedented in a region where the unprecedented is expected. ISIS is spreading across the Middle East, traveling down a river of blood toward Baghdad, Amman, and Damascus. That our State Department still believes that ISIS is subject to moral pressure or diplomatic persuasion makes one wonder if they watch the news. ISIS isn’t a rational actor, but John Kerry and Hashtag Harf seem to think that strongly-worded tweets are a substitute for having an American foreign policy that recognizes evil when it sees it and takes action to protect American interests.
Vladimir Putin rolls Obama on a near-daily basis, with the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine being greeted largely with toothless sanctions and rhetoric. Our NATO allies aren’t going to walk away from today’s Estonian events with a sense of clarity and resolve. They, like our enemies, know that Obama is great at promises and great at speeches, but far less reliable when it comes to commitments that might interfere with his legacy, or his golf game.
Barack Obama deserves the scorn history will shovel on his shoddy, pathetic foreign policy. But it isn’t Obama I’m worried about. It’s the next president. He’ll face a world where American credibility is so deeply shattered that it may be irrevocably broken. And sadly, almost every Republican candidate on the list will fail at reforming the State Department’s culture of appeasement, solicitude to foreign evil, and preemptive abandonment of American interests, principles, and values.
As you start to pay attention to 2016, you should be looking for a singular Republican candidate who can break this Administration’s foreign policy paradigm and articulate a path out of the epic disaster Barack Obama has crafted for us. Obama will leave us a world less safe, less free, and less prosperous than when he became president. The next administration will be left a monumental and near-impossible task, one more difficult and consequential than the Blame Bush crowd inherited in 2009.
Republicans won’t need to fall back on “Blame Obama” rhetoric. The world around them, and history’s judgment on Obama, will do that for them.