Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama’s Claims Nothing But Dust in Wind

Published in Commentary magazine on July 8, 2013



According to news reports, more than 50 people were killed on Monday when demonstrators enraged by the military overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist president clashed with Egyptian forces. It was the deadliest incident since Mohamed Morsi’s removal. In addition to the dead, hundreds of Egyptians were wounded.

So Egypt, the most important Arab nation in the world, is in turmoil. President Obama, meanwhile, has succeeded in alienating virtually every faction (both the pro- and anti-Morsi elements within Egypt feel betrayed by the United States). Having the Egyptian military depose from power the Muslim Brotherhood might have been the best of some very bad options. But it isn’t optimal by any means. The effect of the coup may well be to destabilize Egypt for years, it might further radicalize the Brotherhood, and a more fundamentalist Islamist faction within Egypt, the Salafist/Al Nour party, is emerging as political kingmakers.

But the turmoil in Egypt shouldn’t obscure the disaster that is unfolding in Syria, where a brutal civil war has killed upwards of 100,000 people, displaced millions more, and is destabilizing traditional American allies like Jordan, strengthening both Iran and Hezbollah and allowing Russia to establish a greater presence in the Middle East. And Syria, in turn, should not distract us from the rising authoritarian rule and Islamist tendencies of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, the further destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan, the increasing violence and instability in Iraq, the worrisome developments in Afghanistan, and the uncertainty surrounding the future of Libya, to name just a few other world hotspots.

There are many different ways to measure the multiplying failures of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but one good place to start is to read the president’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, where he pledged a “new beginning” between America and the Arab/Islamic world. It’s very instructive (and depressing) to be reminded of what Mr. Obama promised versus what has unfolded on his watch.

A second place to go is to Vali Nasr’s book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Nasr, who is now dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, served in the Obama administration for two years. His book lays out a highly critical case against the president’s foreign policy–including why Obama’s purposeful retreat from the Middle East has been a grave error that has, among other things, given the strategic advantage to China. In Nasr’s words:

America – dragged by Europeans into ending butchery in Libya, abandoning Afghanistan to an uncertain future, resisting a leadership role in ending the massacre of civilians in Syria, and then rolling back its commitments to the region to “pivot” to Asia – hardly looks indispensable.

In the cocoon of our public debate Obama gets high marks on foreign policy. That is because his policies’ principal aim is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion – he has done more of the things that people want and fewer o f the things we have to do that may be unpopular. To our allies, however, our constant tactical maneuvers don’t add up to a coherent strategy or a vision of global leadership. Gone is the exuberant American desire to lead the world. In its place there is the image of a superpower tired of the world and in retreat, most visibility from the one area of the world where it has been most intensely engaged. That impression serves neither America’s long-run interest nor stability around the world.

But even if you grant all that, there is something more that needs to be said–something that everyone who serves in high positions in the federal government, and especially in the White House, eventually learns. It is that governing is more difficult than giving speeches; that the world is complicated and untidy; and that often events are simply beyond the capacity of America to shape.

Before he became president, Barack Obama spoke as if the powers of the office, at least with him at the helm, would be nearly limitless. He would halt the rise of the oceans and remake the world. All the problems that existed were the responsibility of his predecessor. If Obama were elected, nations would bend to his will and leaders would bend to his ways. He was, we were assured, a world-historical figure, a once-in-a-generation leader, even a Lincoln-like one.

It turns out Mr. Obama’s claims were nothing more than dust in the wind. He has been humbled by events and is now at the mercy of them. Some of this is certainly due to his own ineptness; some of it is also due to forces beyond his control. A more self-aware individual would have been wiser about all this before he took office. But now he knows his limitations. And so do we.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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