by Bruce Thornton
It’s often hard to determine whether a series of bad policies results from stupidity or malicious intent. Occam’s razor suggests that the former is the more likely explanation, as conspiracies assume a high degree of intelligence, complex organization, and secrecy among a large number of people, qualities that usually are much less frequent than the simple stupidity, disorganization, and inability to keep a secret more typical of our species. Yet surveying the nearly 6 years of Obama’s disastrous foreign policy blunders, I’m starting to lean towards Goldfinger’s Chicago mob-wisdom: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it’s enemy action.”
Obama’s ineptitude started with his general foreign policy philosophy. George Bush, so the narrative went, was a trigger-happy, unilateralist, blundering, “dead or alive” cowboy who rushed into an unnecessary war in Iraq after alienating our allies and insulting the Muslim world. Obama pledged to be different. As a Los Angeles Times editorial advised him in January 2009, “The Bush years, defined by ultimatums and unilateral actions around the world, must be brought to a swift close with a renewed emphasis on diplomacy, consultation and the forging of broad international coalitions.” Obama eagerly took this advice, reaching out not just to our allies, but also to sworn enemies like Syria, Venezuela, and Iran, and serially bowing to various potentates around the globe. He went on the apology tour, in which he confessed America’s “arrogant, dismissive, derisive” behavior and the “darker periods in our history.” And he followed up by initiating America’s retreat from international affairs, “leading from behind,” appeasing our enemies, and using rhetorical bluster as a substitute for coherent, forceful action. Here follow 3 of the many mistakes that suggest something other than inexperience and a lack of knowledge is driving Obama’s policies.
Remember the “reset” button Obama offered to Russia? In September 2009 he made a down payment on this policy by reversing George Bush’s plan to station a radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based missile interceptors in Poland. Russia had complained about these defensive installations, even though they didn’t threaten Russian territory. So to appease the Russians, Obama abandoned Poland and the Czech Republic, who still live in the dark shadow of their more powerful former oppressors, while Russia’s Iranian clients were emboldened by their patron’s ability to make the superpower Americans back down. As George Marshall Fund fellow David J. Kramer prophesized at the time, Obama’s caving “to Russian pressure . . . will encourage leaders in Moscow to engage in more loud complaining and bully tactics (such as threatening Iskander missiles against the Poles and Czechs) because such behavior gets desired results.”
Obama followed up this blunder with the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia signed in 2010. This agreement didn’t include tactical nuclear weapons, leaving the Russians with a 10-1 advantage. Multiple warheads deployed on a missile were counted as one for purposes of the treaty, which meant that the Russians could exceed the 1550 limit. Numerous other problems plague this treaty, but the worst is the dependence on Russian honesty to comply with its terms. Yet as Keith B. Payne and Mark B. Schneider have written recently, for years Russia has serially violated the terms of every arms-control treaty it has signed, for obvious reasons: “These Russian actions demonstrate the importance the Kremlin attaches to its new nuclear-strike capabilities. They also show how little importance the Putin regime attaches to complying with agreements that interfere with those capabilities. Russia not only seems intent on creating new nuclear- and conventional-strike capabilities against U.S. allies and friends. It has made explicit threats against some of them in recent years.” Busy pushing the reset button, Obama has ignored all this cheating. Nor did Obama’s 2012 appeasing pledge to outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev–– that after the election he would “have more flexibility” about the proposed European-based anti-missile defense system angering Russia––could convince Vladimir Putin to play ball with the U.S. on Iran and Syria. Obama’s groveling “reset” outreach has merely emboldened Russia to expand its influence and that of its satellites like Iran and Syria, at the expense of the interests and security of America and its allies.
Syria is another American enemy Obama thought his charm offensive could win over. To do so he had to ignore Syria’s long history of supporting terrorists outfits like Hezbollah, murdering its sectarian and political rivals, assassinating Lebanon’s anti-Syrian Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, and facilitating the transit of jihadists–– during one period over 90% of foreign fighters–– into Iraq to kill Americans. Yet Obama sent diplomatic officials on 6 trips to Syria in an attempt to make strongman Bashar al Assad play nice. In return, in 2010 Assad hosted a cozy conference with Hezbollah terrorist leader Hassan Nasrallah and the genocidal Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where they discussed “a Middle East without Zionists and without colonialists.” Despite such rhetoric, even as the uprising against Assad was unfolding in March 2011, Secretary of State Clinton said, “There’s a different leader in Syria now. 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.”
In response to the growing resistance against the “reformer” Assad, Obama once again relied on blustering rhetoric rather than timely action to bring down an enemy of the U.S. Sanctions and Executive Orders flew thick and fast, but no military aid was provided to Assad’s opponents, the moderates soon to be marginalized by foreign terrorists armed by Iran. As time passed, more Syrians died and more terrorists filtered into Syria, while Obama responded with toothless tough rhetoric, proclaiming, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Equally ineffective was Obama’s talk in 2012 of a “red line” and “game-changer” if Assad used chemical weapons. Assad, obviously undeterred by threats from the world’s greatest military power, proceeded to use chemical weapons. Obama threatened military action, only to back down on the excuse that he needed the permission of Congress. Instead, partnering with the Russian wolf his own weakness had empowered, he brokered a deal that in effect gave Assad a free hand to bomb cities and kill civilians at the price of promising to surrender his chemical stockpiles. The butcher Assad magically changed from a pariah who had to go, into a legitimate partner of the United States, one whose cooperation we depend on for implementing the agreement. Given such cover, he has continued to slaughter his enemies and provide invaluable battlefield experience to tens of thousands of terrorist fighters.
Of course, without the threat of military punishment for violating the terms of the agreement––punishment vetoed by new regional player Russia––the treaty is worthless. Sure enough, this month we learned that Assad is dragging his feet, missing a deadline for turning over his weapons, while surrendering so far just 5% of his stockpiles. And those are just the weapons he has acknowledged possessing. In response, Secretary of State John Kerry has blustered, “Bashar al-Assad is not, in our judgment, fully in compliance because of the timing and the delays that have taken place contrary to the [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons]’s judgment that this could move faster. So the options are all the options that originally existed. No option has been taken off the table.” You can hear Assad, Rouhani, Nasrallah, and Putin rolling on the ground laughing their you-know-what’s off over that empty threat.
Despite that long record of murder and hatred, when he first came into office, Obama made Iran a particular object of his diplomatic “outreach.” He “bent over backwards,” as he put it, “extending his hand” to the mullahs “without preconditions,” going so far as to keep silent in June 2009 as they brutally suppressed protests against the stolen presidential election. But the mullahs contemptuously dismissed all these overtures. In response, Obama issued a series of “deadlines” for Iran to come clean on its weapons programs, more bluster the regime ignored, while Obama assured them that “We remain committed to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran.” Just as with Russia and Syria, still more big talk about “all options are on the table” for preventing the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons has been scorned by the regime.
Doubling down on this failed policy, Obama along with the Europeans gambled that sanctions would bring Iran to its knees before it reached breakout capability for producing a weapon. Odds of success were questionable, but just as the sanctions appeared to be pushing the Iranian economy, and perhaps the regime, to collapse, in November of last year Obama entered into negotiations that resulted in a disastrous agreement that trades sanction relief for empty promises. This deal ensures that Iran will become a nuclear power, since the agreement allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium in violation of numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions. Finally, in an act of criminal incoherence, Obama threatened to veto any Congressional legislation imposing meaningful economic punishment for future Iranian cheating and intransigence.
Given this “abject surrender,” as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton called it, it’s no surprise that the Iranians are trumpeting the agreement as a victory: “In this agreement, the right of Iranian nation to enrich uranium was accepted by world powers,” the “moderate reformer” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani bragged. “With this agreement … the architecture of sanctions will begin to break down.” Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, agreed: “None of the enrichment centers will be closed and Fordow and Natanz will continue their work and the Arak heavy water program will continue in its present form and no material (enriched uranium stockpiles) will be taken out of the country and all the enriched materials will remain inside the country. The current sanctions will move towards decrease, no sanctions will be imposed and Iran’s financial resources will return.” Memo to Mr. Obama: when the adversary loudly brags that the agreement benefits him, you’d better reexamine the terms of the deal.
As it stands today, the sanction regime is unraveling even as we speak, while the Iranians are within months of nuclear breakout capacity. Meanwhile the economic pain that was starting to change Iranian behavior is receding. According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s economy is projected to grow 2% in fiscal year 2014-15, compared to a 2% contraction this year. Inflation has dropped over 10 points since last year. Global businesses are flocking to Tehran to cut deals, while Obama blusters that “we will come down on [sanctions violators] like a ton of bricks.” Add that dull cliché to “red line,” “game-changer,” and the other empty threats that comprise the whole of Obama’s foreign policy.
These foreign policy blunders and numerous others––especially the loss of critical ally Egypt–– reflect ideological delusions that go beyond Obama. The notion that aggressors can be tamed and managed with diplomatic engagement has long been a convenient cover for a political unwillingness to take military action with all its dangers and risks. Crypto-pacifist Democrats are particularly fond of the magical thinking that international organizations, summits, “shuttle diplomacy,” conferences, and other photogenic confabs can substitute for force.
But progressive talk of “multilateralism” and “diplomatic engagement” hides something else: the Oliver Stone/Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Richard Falk self-loathing narrative that the United States is a force of evil in the world, a neo-colonialist, neo-imperialist, predatory capitalist oppressor responsible for the misery and tyranny afflicting the globe. Given that America’s power is corrupt, we need a foreign policy of withdrawal, retreat, and apologetic humility, with our national sovereignty subjected to transnational institutions like the U.N., the International Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights ––exactly the program that Obama has been working on for the last 5 years. Given the damage such policies are serially inflicting on our security and interests, it starts to make sense that inexperience or stupidity is not as cogent an explanation as enemy action.
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