Russia’s armed intervention in the Syrian civil war is but the latest foreign policy disaster of Barack Obama’s tenure. Yet Obama has been nothing if not consistent. What many see as bungling, naiveté, or evidence of a plot to destroy America is simply the consequence of a particular view of interstate relations he has openly and frequently endorsed.
Obama came into office chanting all the mantras of idealistic internationalism. In contrast to the caricature of George W. Bush as a unilateralist cowboy disdainful of diplomacy, Obama promised to “rebuild the alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security.” Balance of power realism, which is predicated on the notion that sovereign nations seek power to pursue their own interests, was rejected: “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group or people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” Contrary to accepting force as an arbiter of conflict, he championed “tough diplomacy” and “new partnerships,” promising our enemies to “seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” and to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Finally, he evoked America’s history of foreign policy aggression as a factor in contemporary conflict, in his Cairo speech decrying “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.”
In short, Obama represented the foreign relations idealism that despite its repeated failures is now in its second century. Central to this idealism is the false notion that humanity is progressing away from violence as an instrument of state policy, towards a world of international institutions focused on verbal engagement and discussion. This “new world order,” as George H.W. Bush called it, is founded on a “harmony of interests,” a shared commitment to peace, prosperity, democracy, and human rights. Any nation that behaves contrary to this internationalist ideal is merely an avatar from the brutal past, one “doomed to failure,” as Obama has said of Putin’s adventurism.
Obama has consistently evoked this belief in his statements about Russia’s aggression. He scolded Putin’s attacks on Ukraine by asking rhetorically, “Does he recognise that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?” The implication is that this eternal method for nations to achieve their interests––force–– is a relic from the past, an anachronism in the brave new world of a global “shared destiny.” Thus Putin is, as Obama has called him, “the bored kid in the back of a classroom,” making trouble because he doesn’t understand that he “looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence . . . he’s missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression.” Last week Obama reprised this belief in a new world when he told the U.N., “We, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backwards.” But what if Russia wants something other than a diversified economy and good relations with its neighbors?
Meanwhile, the backward-looking Putin has taken over the Crimea, solidified his hold on eastern Ukraine, and now has replaced the U.S. as the dominant power in the Middle East, positioned to influence if not control that oil-rich region on which the global economy depends. Putin’s methods may be old-fashioned and crude, but they work.
As for Obama, his multilateralism, fetish for diplomacy, and aversion to force have laid the groundwork for this new anti-American alliance in the “multilateral” cooperation of Iran, Russia, Iraq, and China. Indeed, even as Putin was sandbagging Obama at the U.N., our president was overseeing an empty exercise in international diplomacy, a “Leaders Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism.” Obama introduced this gab-fest by welcoming ““representatives from more than 100 nations, more than 20 multilateral institutions, some 120 civil society groups from around the world, and partners from the private sector” with whom he will construct a “comprehensive strategy” for restoring order in a region disintegrating because of his own folly and preference for diplomatic words rather than military deeds.
Meanwhile, as Russia bombs and puts boots on the ground in Syria, Obama sneers at a press conference, “I didn’t see after that speech at the United Nations suddenly that 60-nation coalition we have lining up behind him.” The difference is Putin’s tiny coalition is getting something done by taking action, while Obama’s relegates itself to a symbolic 11 bombing sorties a day, a third of which don’t even drop their bombs. Maybe that’s because Obama has flatly stated, “No amount of U.S. military engagement will solve the problem” in Syria. I surmise that Putin, the mullahs, the Chinese, and the Iraqis would disagree.
Then there is Obama’s equally feckless Secretary of State, who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after Russia began bombing the American-backed fighters battling Assad. Kerry later said that he and Lavrov had planned a “military-to-military de-confliction discussion, meeting, conference, whichever … and several options were agreed to be further discussed…we also agreed that it is imperative to find a solution to this conflict… even as we don’t yet have a resolution with respect to some critical choices in that political solution, we think we have some very specific steps that may be able to help lead in the right direction. That needs to be properly explored … And so, we finally agreed we have a lot of work to do.” In other words, they exchanged empty phrases and talked about talking. This is the same John Kerry, remember, who two years ago warned against a “Munich moment” in Syria if something wasn’t done about Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons. He must not know that the “Munich moment” is about talking rather than acting.
And while all this “discussion” is going on, Russian commanders commence bombing in Syria after giving the U.S. one hour to get its own aircraft out of the way. That’s what passes for “deconflicting” in the alternative universe of Obama’s foreign policy. One is reminded of the Athenian orator Demosthenes chastising the Athenians’ inaction in the face of Philip of Macedon’s aggression: “It is not surprising that Philip has the upper hand: he serves on campaign and toils hard in person, is present on the spot in every situation, and lets pass by no chance or opportunity, while you procrastinate, vote decrees and make inquiries.” Russia acts, Obama and Kerry “discuss.”
Obama’s catalogue of failure has been the fruit of the bad ideas he expressed as a candidate and then as president. These widely shared ideas, moreover, have a long history, and ultimately reflect the mistaken assumption that humanity is progressing away from violence to peaceful coexistence, since all peoples across the globe are “just like us” and share the same aims. But as the great historian of Soviet tyranny Robert Conquest wrote, this assumption is the most dangerous mistake those managing our foreign policy can make:
We are still faced with the absolutely crucial problem of making the intellectual and imaginative effort not to project our ideas of common sense or natural motivation onto the products of totally different cultures. The central point is less that people misunderstand other people, or that cultures misunderstand other cultures, than that they have no notion that this may be the case. They assume that the light of their own parochial common sense is enough. And they frame policies based on illusions. Yet how profound is this difference between political psychologies and between the motivations of different political traditions, and how deep-set and how persistent these attitudes are!
Obama has serially proved the truth of this timeless wisdom, misunderstanding every one of our adversaries and enemies from the mullahs in Iran to Vladimir Putin. The human race is not progressing towards some peaceful utopia, because human nature has not advanced that much over the last three millennia. The desire for power, resources, and status is as constant among nations as it is among men, and force is the eternal means of achieving those aims. To think that such men can be talked or bargained out of what they perceive is their interests is sheer folly. The truth is, war is not an anomaly or evidence of a failure to progress, but a sad constant of state relations. To think otherwise is to encourage the bold and violent and the death and misery they leave in their wake. The 4 million Syrian refugees and 250,000 dead after Obama’s bluster of “red lines” and “Assad must go” are testimony to this eternal truth