As Recep Tayyip Erdogan steers Turkey further away from liberal democracy and ever closer to authoritarianism—he recently staged a rally with a million people waving banners that read, “You are a gift from God, Erdogan…Order us to die and we will do it”—we’re reminded of just how often President Barack Obama has picked the wrong partners and chosen the wrong direction on the world stage.
Springtime for Strongmen
The first example came in March 2009, when the Obama administration vowed to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations. Obama called for “a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests, and to expand dialogue and cooperation that can pave the way to progress.”
That sounded and looked good on paper—and still does—but Obama’s Russia policy, like so much of his foreign policy, was based on the flawed premise that President George W. Bush was, by and large, the problem. The implication of the “reset” was that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wanted a partner, if only Washington would change its tone. That hypothesis has been obliterated. Russia invaded Georgia during the “with us or against us” Bush administration, and Ukraine during the “lead from behind” Obama administration. Putin—not Washington’s tone—is the problem.
In fact, Putin has grown more bellicose and less open to dialogue in response to the “reset”: He waged cyberwar against the U.S. and hacked the U.S. political system; mused about using nuclear weapons to de-escalate military conflict; massed troops on NATO’s borders and violated NATO airspace; flouted arms-control treaties; unveiled a military doctrine pledging to use Russia’s military “to ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation”; increased military spending; annexed Crimea; occupied eastern Ukraine; and intervened in Syria to shield the monstrous regime of Bashar Assad.
In early 2009, the Obama administration sent senior officials to Damascus with the goal of “seeking an understanding with Syria,” as The New York Times reported.
In 2010, Obama used a recess appointment to post an ambassador in Damascus. (The U.S. hadn’t had an ambassador there since 2005.) Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Assad “a different leader” and assured us that “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Arab Spring protests in Syria were peaceful at first, but it simply was not in Assad’s DNA to permit any challenge to his rule: His father slaughtered 20,000 to staunch a 1982 uprising. The younger Assad proved far more ruthless, as evidenced by his gassing of Ghouta, which killed 1,500 civilians. In addition to reopening the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare, this “reformer” waged a war that has claimed 470,000 lives, teamed up with Putin, and allowed Iran and Hezbollah to expand their reach.
After farcical elections in June 2009, the Iranian people took to the streets. Their rulers responded to what was alternately called the “Green Revolution” and the “Twitter Revolution” with deadly force. Dozens were killed, more than 1,000 arrested.
The White House reaction was so timid that the protestors chanted, “Obama, are you with them or with us?” At one point, the opposition sent the administration a memo asking for support and urging “the Free World” to “reward the brave people of Iran and simultaneously advance Western interests and world peace.”
After taking heavy criticism for not saying enough to support the Iranian people, the president meekly explained, “The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran…The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future…If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent and not coercion…the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government.”
These lawyerly comments were the very opposite of what’s expected from the leader of the Free World. Not only was the president’s tone wrong, he was wrong on substance. Born amidst an act of terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran has never sought the respect of the international community because it has never acted in a way deserving of respect. Nor has it ever respected the basic rights of the Iranian people. Nor were the Iranian people having a “debate.” They were being beaten by a government with no political legitimacy.
No one was calling on the president to send in the 82nd Airborne. But freedom-loving people look to America for signals. The president’s signals were loud and clear that spring. The sad irony of the president’s reaction to this “Persian Spring” was that it answered his own question of a year before: “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his 2008 Berlin speech. The Iranian people know the answer.
So do the Cuban people. Hours before Obama arrived in Havana to meet Cuba’s tyrants, Castro’s police and a regime rent-a-mob attacked peaceful protestors calling for the release of political prisoners. Two days after Obama departed, Castro’s thugs rounded up and beat up pro-democracy demonstrators in Havana.
Mosques, Moscow, and Mubarak
As the Arab Spring swept into Egypt, Vice President Joe Biden called Egypt’s longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak an “ally.” Clinton called Mubarak a “partner” and warned that revolutions can be “hijacked by new autocrats.”
This pragmatic approach was understandable. Mubarak was a moderating influence in the region. He kept peace with Israel, kept the Suez open, kept extremists at bay, and kept problem states like Iraq and Iran on the margins of Mideast politics. Indeed, Obama called Mubarak “very helpful on a range of tough issues” and urged Mubarak “to be careful about not resorting to violence.” But just 14 days later, Obama cut Mubarak loose. After demanding that Mubarak “put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy,” an impatient Obama called on Mubarak “to step down immediately.”
Mubarak was arrested, and Egypt began its experiment in “genuine democracy.” Unbound by the rule of law, the government of Mohamed Morsi trampled minority rights; rammed through an illiberal constitution; rigged parliamentary districts; allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to use violence against the opposition; and granted itself power to overrule judicial decisions.
But then, Egypt’s fractured opposition came together, united by just one thing: They loathed Morsi. Millions rallied in the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation. When Gen. Abdel Sisi moved against Egypt’s first democratically-elected leader, all Obama could muster was a statement that “No transition to democracy comes without difficulty.”
“Soon after his 2008 election, Obama began to court Erdogan, whom he saw as a moderate Muslim democrat who could help him stabilize the Middle East,” Politico details. Obama believed Erdogan’s Turkey “would step in and take on the role of a strong power in the Middle East” and “allow the U.S. to step back,” Blaise Misztal of the Bipartisan Policy Center told Politico.
That’s a crucial point. We cannot understand Obama’s mishandling of Erdogan separate from Obama’s eagerness to disengage from Iraq. For Obama, U.S. involvement in Iraq was always a mistake to be corrected, not a commitment to be sustained. Turkey offered a pathway to the exit. This was naïve at best—and reckless at worst. After all, while serving as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s, Erdogan was arrested for fomenting religious hatred after declaring: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
It was an early indication of Erdogan’s bent toward Islamist governance—something Washington should not encourage. As Tony Blair observes, “We have to be clear we will not support systems or governments based on sectarian religious politics.”
Had he not been pressing so hard for U.S. withdrawal from the region—had he not confused elections for liberal democracy—Obama would have realized that Erdogan wasn’t a partner, but rather an Islamist with authoritarian tendencies.
By 2010, as Politico notes, Erdogan had taken “a dark turn toward authoritarianism.” Indeed, Erdogan’s Turkey had been falling in the Freedom House rankings since 2011. According to Freedom House’s 2015 report, Erdogan “waged an increasingly aggressive campaign against democratic pluralism,” “demanded that media owners censor coverage or fire critical journalists,” and “told the Constitutional Court he does not respect its rulings.” By early 2016, Freedom House concluded, Erdogan “exhibited increasingly authoritarian behavior.”
Erdogan has used the coup as a pretext to purge Turkey’s institutions of anyone daring to deviate from his cult of personality. He closed 130 media outlets; seized control of 1,200 NGOs and colleges; fired 1,577 college deans; dismissed 6,000 judges, prosecutors, and military officers (40 percent of Turkey’s generals); and fired, detained, or suspended 60,000 government employees. Doubtless, their replacements will have to take oaths of loyalty not to Turkey’s constitution, but to Turkey’s leader. In a fitting coda, Erdogan is now pivoting toward Moscow.
What can the next president learn from Obama’s missteps?
A president should be consistent in his/her dealings with each nation. Obama’s vacillations in Egypt and Syria contributed to uncertainty, when both demanded clarity.
Obama could have been idealistic, called for Mubarak to step down from the outset, supported Morsi, and used Washington’s aid leverage to block Sisi. Or he could have been pragmatic, stood with Mubarak from the outset, weathered the Arab Spring, and opted for stability. Either path would have been defensible and perhaps effective. What proved ineffective and indefensible was Obama’s zigzagging approach.
Obama warned Assad that use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States. Thus, after Ghouta, the president set the diplomatic, political and military wheels in motion for airstrikes. But he undercut himself by engaging in a prime-time debate with himself over the ramifications of U.S. intervention and then punting the problem to Congress. Make no mistake: seeking congressional authorization for military action—something the much-maligned Bush administration did before Afghanistan and Iraq—is the preferable way to go to war. However, other precedents—Reagan in Grenada, the elder Bush in Panama, Clinton in Kosovo, Obama himself in Libya—underscore that congressional authorization was not essential in Syria.
Obama sought a way out of his conundrum by accepting Putin’s promise to cajole Assad into handing over his chemical weapons. The Russian-brokered deal transformed Assad from an international pariah “who must go” into an indispensable partner who must stay. To add insult to injury, Assad’s army continued to use chemical weapons. As many of us predicted, entrusting an untrustworthy regime to vouch for the disarmament of another untrustworthy regime was a recipe for failure.
Whether or not the U.S. should avenge Ghouta is open to debate—although only the coldest adherents of realpolitik could look at the hellscape of Assad’s Syria and shrug—but the importance of U.S. credibility is not open to debate; nor is maintaining the international taboo against using chemical weapons.
Stand by your friends
Donald Trump drew heavy criticism—and rightly so—for suggesting he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Yet it pays to recall that this chill wind began blowing during the Obama administration.
It was the Obama administration that employed phrases like “nation-building here at home” to explain/promote/defend/encourage/rationalize America’s turn inward; put a time limit on America’s commitment to NATO in Libya; left Poland and the Czech Republic out on a limb by reversing NATO’s missile-defense plans; pulled the rug out from under Mubarak and Morsi; and invoiced the French military after Paris requested support in Mali.
The 2016 presidential campaign revealed that the nation-building-at-home caucus represents a sizeable swath of American politics: Sen. Rand Paul promised to “build some bridges here at home.” Trump declared, “We have to build our own nation” and embraced the historically-fraught “America First” label. Perhaps the nation-building-at-home caucus forgets that much of the world accepted American leadership in the postwar decades precisely because Americans abandoned “America First,” devoted resources to nation-building overseas, turned away from isolationism, and rejected the twin lies that America is too good for the world and that America can do no good in the world. Instead, postwar America pursued enlightened self-interest, rebuilt Europe and Japan, constructed and maintained alliances, defended West Berlin, South Korea, and South Vietnam, fed Somalia, protected Kurds and Kuwaitis and Kosovars, and served as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense.
Support liberal democracy
Obama, like most Americans, conflated democracy and liberal democracy.
Democracy—a basic form of government in which the majority rules—is preferable to autocracy. But it’s no guarantee of freedom, and it ironically can lead to autocracy. Unchecked by the rule of law, democracy can drift into demagoguery and ultimately cult-of-personality rule. See Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey.
Liberal democracy, on the other hand, is characterized by majority rule with minority rights, limits on government power, individual freedom, and the rule of law. The rule of law means just what it says: The law is what rules—not charismatic strongmen, not referendums or mobs, not the tyranny of the majority. The rule of law is what separates a liberal democracy from a country that simply holds an election. Washington would do well to support governments that respect the rule of law.
Rebuild the shield
International stability and American security depend on America’s deterrent military strength. But sequestration is rapidly shrinking the resources, reach, and role of the U.S. military.
In a time of war and instability, the defense budget has fallen from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent. In the 1980s, the Navy had 594 ships, today’s fleet just 272. The Air Force fielded 173 active bombers and 1,622 active fighter/attack aircraft in 2005, but just 141 bombers and 1,273 fighters by 2015. The Army’s active-duty endstrength will fall from 570,000 soldiers to 450,000 by 2018, the Marines’ active-duty endstrength from 202,000 to 182,000.
This shrunken military makes deterrence less credible and conflict more likely. The only thing that keeps the peace is a willingness to use our resources to keep the dangers at bay. Yet too many policymakers disregard the wisdom of deterrence, and too many people of faith forget that the aim of deterrence is, by definition, to prevent war.
To be sure, it’s far easier to critique a foreign policy than it is to execute one (take it from someone who does his share of critiquing). And to be fair, Obama inherited a foreign-policy file highlighting the perils of engagement. However, he will hand his successor a foreign-policy file highlighting the perils of disengagement. Thus, it’s difficult to look back at his record (or ahead at what he set in motion) without shaking one’s head in disappointment—and worry.
Photo Credit: President Obama leaves a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Egypt on June 4, 2009. Official White House photo by Pete Souza, via Flickr.