One of Barack Obama’s proudest moments as president, by his own description, was his 2013 decision to repudiate his “red line” warning to Syria’s Bashar al Assad: the threat of U.S. military force to punish the regime for using chemical weapons against its own people. Instead, Mr. Assad, after killing thousands, agreed to surrender his chemical stockpile to international inspectors. “I’m very proud of this moment,” Mr. Obama recently told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake.”
Why is the president certain that this perception was wrong, and that his failure to enforce a U.S. threat of military action is a reason to boast?
Because, according to Mr. Obama, his decision went against the “playbook in Washington” that presidents typically adopt. “It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment,” he told Mr. Goldberg. “And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.” As the Obama White House sees it, much of the D.C. foreign policy “establishment” is “doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders.”
Translation: foreign policy experts who disagree with the president do not have the best interests of the United States in mind. This week some members of the so-called foreign policy establishment fired back.
At a gathering hosted by the Hudson Institute, senior fellow Michael Doran moderated a panel discussion with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee; Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Ambassador Eric Edelman, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. All of the panelists criticized the president’s reversal on the use of force against Assad as a dangerous misjudgment that has invited greater instability and international aggression.
Senator Graham said the “big winners” are “those dictators of the world who think they can do anything they want without reprisal.” Ms. Dunne called the president’s approach to Syria “a policy defined by the absence of a strategy.” Mr. Satloff sees a perverse ethical reasoning at work in the White House: “It is not moral courage to take on those who used chemical weapons against the innocent,” he said, “but it’s moral courage to take on the Washington establishment.”
Ambassador Edelman discerns a breathtaking hubris: the president’s belief that his words alone, joined to his personal biography, can change the nature of international politics. “He sees foreign affairs in need of a transformation, which can be accomplished by the force of his personality.”
No need to take the advice of his defense secretaries, three of whom opposed his Syria policy. No reason to heed the collective counsel of his other top military advisors about Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Islamic State. No reason to believe—as every modern president has believed—that breaking a promise to punish international aggression would only invite greater aggression. Such thinking, according to Mr. Obama, is merely the product of an outdated “playbook.”
In all this, says Ambassador Edelman, Barack Obama looks and sounds very much like the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump. “I think what you see on display…is the president’s narcissism.” Whatever we make of that judgment, some of the catastrophic results of the president’s decision-making are on display: Mr. Assad’s continued butchery of Syrian civilians; the rise of the Islamic State and its genocidal violence against Christians and other religious minorities; the profound destabilization of Arab states, such as Jordan and Lebanon, trying to cope with the Syrian refugee crisis; and on it goes.
The long-term consequences of Mr. Obama’s “liberation” from the foreign policy “playbook” could be even more dire. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a rare flash of moral clarity, warned recently about the threat of ISIS—a threat, he neglected to mention, created and sustained by Mr. Obama’s policies in Syria: “You could have allies and friends of ours fail. You could have a massive migration into Europe that destroys Europe, leads to the pure destruction of Europe, ends the European project, and everyone runs for cover and you’ve got the 1930s all over again, with nationalism and fascism and other things breaking out.”
Will this be the ultimate legacy of the Obama doctrine—the collapse of Europe and the rise of new strains of fascist violence around the world?
Mr. Obama’s evident contempt for the foreign policy “establishment” has blinded him to a geo-political reality: The failure to act always carries consequences in the modern world. When the United States fails to act decisively at a moment of international crisis, there can be far more devastating results—more violence, more human suffering—than when America intervenes.
The ongoing effects of the president’s narcissism, if that’s what it is, await the next president.
Joseph Loconte is an Associate Professor of History at the King’s College in New York City and a Senior Editor at Providence. He is the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: President Barack Obama holds a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room of the White House, April 5, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, via Flickr)