Delusion and Retreat
Obama’s foreign policy made a virtue of escapism and eschewing national interest, helping to create the growing global disorder we now face
The structures that bind the nations of the world together are breaking down before our eyes. Two savage wars are raging in volatile regions, either of which might at any moment blow up to involve additional belligerents and the potential use of nuclear weapons. The United Nations, established to prevent such disasters, has become a plaything of dictators: Iran, one of the bloodiest regimes on earth and a proud sponsor of terrorism, has just assumed the chair of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.
China has greatly accelerated production of nuclear warheads—and the Chinese media has begun to issue threats about “war on a global scale.” The erratic Kim regime in North Korea has the bomb and the aforementioned Iranians, who have promised to annihilate Israel, are about to get theirs. The Venezuelans are threatening to invade Guyana, which would disrupt the energy markets. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan is once again a potential staging area for terrorist attacks; but many additional locations are on offer—Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, whole swaths of the Sahel. Meanwhile, waves of escapees from impoverished and conflict-ridden nations batter democratic societies and roil democratic politics.
This global implosion is a consequence of the failure of American leadership, most particularly in the Obama-Biden years. This is not to let their predecessors off the hook. George W. Bush, for one, was handed a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy after 9/11, which he proceeded to squander during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Bush made a fetish of promoting democracy abroad until free elections put Hamas in control of Gaza. A weakened Bush was unable to do much about Vladimir Putin’s bullying of Georgia, his first excursion outside Russia’s borders. Each of these failures bore bitter fruit.
But Bush left office 15 years ago. For 11 of those years, the government has been in the hands of either Barack Obama or Joe Biden, and the doctrines governing our relations with the world have made a virtue of escapism and retreat. As the U.S. has tiptoed away from crises, aspiring powers like Russia, Iran and China, vectors of violence and disorder, have rushed in to fill the void. It’s important to tease out the peculiar worldview, largely shared by both presidents, that has brought us to this point.
Barack Obama and the Repudiation of Power
During his presidency, Barack Obama disdained the deployment of U.S. power on behalf of our national interest. The whole concept was simply absent from his rhetoric. Even the word “interests” was used sparingly and mainly in the context of how our interests coincided with those of other nations. Obama held a dark view of history, which he judged to be a mindless zero-sum struggle for supremacy. The talk of interests was a cloak for tribal selfishness. “For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes, and, yes, religions subjugating one another in pursuit of their interests,” he admonished at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Obama was persuaded that he had cut the Gordian knot of great power politics. This breakthrough depended less on old-fashioned strategic maneuvers than on a cluster of personal attitudes and attributes, none more important than “smart.” Hillary Clinton, his first secretary of state, called the new approach “smart power.” Obama himself, being power-allergic, preferred to speak in terms of “a smart foreign policy” and “a smarter kind of American leadership.”
To be smart meant to discern how sharply the present had broken with the past. Obama is an unequivocal historicist. His rhetoric assumed that human events move in a predetermined direction, and that a select band of extra-smart minds, armed with masses of data, could shepherd the country and the world into the inevitable future, of which he was a messenger and a representative.
The mission of a smart foreign policy was to save the nations of the earth—ours included—from their own destructive history. Under this scheme, everything old was mired in error. Peoples and governments were irrationally shackled to the past: Their actions were driven by outmoded prejudice, not reality, and thus often ended in disaster.
It follows that conflict is never a clash of interests, only a failure of intellect. Obama and his team, who were smart, understood the true interests of every nation. They represented Russian aggression in Ukraine as “not in the interests of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.” When wayward leaders like Putin played power games, they were told, more in sorrow than in anger, that they had placed themselves “on the wrong side of history.”
Since history always favored the smart, foreign policy needed only one operating principle: avoid mistakes. To dive back into Obama’s presidential statements is to encounter a mind preoccupied to the point of obsession with the mistakes of the past. The “painful chapter in our history” that was Vietnam, the “overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government” and, hovering over everything, the “dumb war” in Iraq—his administration’s prime directive for dealing with the world was never again to indulge in such a toxic cocktail of ignorance and aggression:
When we make rash decisions, reacting to headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in the military—then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts ...
Or, in the more concise foreign policy mantra of the age of Obama: “Don’t do stupid shit.”
The logical conclusion of this outlook was utter inaction. The Obama administration remained determinedly passive in the face of events that shattered the old strategic landscape and began the descent into the vortex.
The Swirl of Events and the Unraveling of the World
Due to the turmoil that followed Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, not much attention has been paid to the consequences of the Obama foreign policy. This is a serious oversight. His tenure was a prolonged bet on the proposition that globally, for the U.S., there can be no such thing as a sin of omission. In every instance, that bet was lost. Hundreds of thousands died as a result—but the slaughter took place in obscure countries like Syria and Libya, while the news media looked in the other direction. From Russian aggression to North Korean nuclear truculence, the troubles that torment us today were loosened or at least given free rein at this time—but the only foreign affairs question that seemed to matter after 2016 was the extent to which Putin controlled the sitting president’s brain.
The Obama doctrines turned out to be an exercise in self-delusion. History hadn’t really entered a new era of benevolence. That was just wish fulfillment. Obama himself didn’t possess prophetic vision or Einsteinian intelligence. That was just vanity. When events began to rain down on his administration, the response lacked any semblance of coherence.
Faced with the crisis of the Egyptian regime in the 2011 “Arab Spring,” for example, the administration never worked out whether to back old ally Hosni Mubarak, the telegenic protesters in Tahrir Square, the democratically elected Islamist Mohamed Morsi or ultimate winner Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Each player in turn felt betrayed by the vacillations of the U.S. government. After a brief flirtation with democracy, the Egyptians, left to their own devices, succumbed once again to authoritarianism.
In the brutal Syrian civil war, the Obama team made no effort either to broker a peace or to support those seeking to overthrow anti-U.S. dictator Bashar al-Assad, creating a geopolitical vacuum quickly filled by fanatical Islamists. President Obama eventually did bestir himself to warn of “enormous consequences” if the Assad regime crossed his “red lines” on the use of chemical weapons. A few months later, the Syrians did just that. The red lines were trampled on; the president dithered. In the end, the consequences were almost invisibly small—the outsourcing of the problem to Putin, Assad’s patron. For the first time in 50 years, the Russians were back in the eastern Mediterranean, bombing the Syrian rebels without mercy. The conflict continues to this day; estimates of deaths run as high as 600,000.
Our posture in the Libya intervention was famously described by the White House as “leading from behind.” The phrase captured the Obama spirit well. Deliberate half-heartedness allowed the conflict to drag on for months and gave Gadhafi time to wreak vengeance on his opponents. The objective of the operation was to save lives, but up to 25,000 were killed on both sides. Libya today remains a broken country and a spawning-ground for terror.
The confusion of wish with fact was impressive. “[W]e’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” Obama asserted in December 2011, as he withdrew the last U.S. troops from that country. He was mistaken. The Iraqi government collapsed before the haphazard forces of the Islamic State—and American troops were back to stay. Obama had dismissed ISIS as the “JV” team, in contrast to the more muscular al-Qaida varsity. He was wrong about that too. The aspiring caliphate was the most successful and destructive of any Islamist group, inflicting beheadings, crucifixions and the genocide of unapproved minorities on a territory the size of Great Britain.
Smart diplomacy seemed remarkably blind to cause and effect. Failure to engage in Syria had opened the door to ISIS, which in turn caused the near-disintegration of an Iraq forsaken by U.S. forces. I find no evidence that either Obama or his high-IQ advisers understood these simple linkages between events.
The administration was unrelentingly hostile to Israel, our strongest ally in the region, but indulgent with Iran, our most determined enemy—and, to the Obama mind, a test of his transformational powers. When massive anti-regime protests rocked Iran, President Obama, leader of the free world, uttered not a single word of encouragement. When captured U.S. Navy sailors were photographed kneeling before gun-toting Iranians, secretary of state John Kerry expressed our “gratitude” for their eventual release. The reward for American meekness was the nuclear deal struck with Iran: a triumph of desire over experience. The Iranians received billions. We got a lot of promises. Nothing in the now defunct agreement would have stopped the regime from building its bomb, and we, their chief target, had somehow blessed the project.
Relations with Russia began with Hillary Clinton bringing a literal “reset button” to Moscow, token of a new and wiser era. It all ended with the Russians conquering Crimea and attacking Ukraine—the direct precursor of the current war. With China, the administration sought “a new model of relations”—meaning it would look the other way as the Chinese lay claim to more and more of the South China Sea and built fortified artificial islands there. Toward North Korea, which boasted it could now reach American shores with its missiles, Obama advocated “strategic patience,” meaning he planned to kick the problem down the road.
Not a single initiative I can think of during Obama’s eight years in office made the U.S. stronger or safer. Allies were left wondering how long they could depend on American friendship. Nations that do not wish us well made their plans on a perception of American passivity. I have hammered on these developments at some length to make a point: We inhabit today the wounded world left behind by the Obama presidency.
Joe Biden and the Burden of Inheritance
The Obama dreamworld fit neatly into the former president’s estimation of his personal attributes. Joe Biden has inherited the dream but is an entirely different person. The worship of the new just doesn’t work when the high priest is an octogenarian. For Biden, probably, “new” is something that happened in the ’90s. The glorification of smart also lacks credibility. At his peak, Biden was never a towering intellect, and his cognitive capacities have declined to the point where it’s unclear who is actually making the decisions in the White House.
Moreover, foreign affairs haven’t exactly been the president’s strong suit. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” judged former defense secretary and CIA chief Robert Gates. Barack Obama had a pithier assessment: “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up.” While this may be unfair, it is evidently a widely held opinion among the elite class. Obama’s policies shipwrecked the world but his narrative survived intact. In the person of Joe Biden, we come to something like narrative collapse.
On his watch, the transformational mission has settled into an automatic reflex. Despite the unwavering enmity of the ayatollahs, Biden has been desperate to renew the nuclear deal, which lapsed during the Trump years. This is policy inertia, with typically baffling consequences. The Iranians train and supply Hamas. Hamas recently massacred 1,200 Israelis, igniting a war in Gaza. The Biden administration supports Israel in the conflict—but, for unfathomable reasons, it just released $10 billion to Iran. Presumably, the money can be turned around to kill more Israelis, on whose side we are on. The explanations offered were nonsensical. This was policy dementia.
Much has been said about Biden’s Afghanistan disaster, not least by me. The episode revealed a persistent inability by the president and his people to grasp what was happening. “There is going to be no circumstance in which you see people lifted off the roof of an embassy,” Biden reassured us in a spectacular display of self-deception. “The likelihood that you’re going to see the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
“We are not withdrawing, we are staying, the embassy is staying, our programs are staying,” insisted secretary of state Antony Blinken, even as helicopters hovered over the U.S. embassy in Kabul. When asked about a possible collapse by our Afghan allies, Blinken replied, “I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.” In fact, Kabul fell to the Taliban in 24 hours. After 13 Americans had died and thousands were left behind, with horrific scenes of panic at Kabul Airport and the country in our enemy’s hands, President Biden surveyed the wreckage and pronounced the whole thing an “extraordinary success.”
We can be sure that agents of chaos like Putin and Hamas were listening. The United States isn’t the world’s policeman but it is the only truly global power. When the president perceives defeat as extraordinary success, the temptation to repeat the experience can become irresistible.
A Tale of Two Wars
A large and significant anomaly to the administration’s brain-dead Obamaism needs to be explained. On the outbreak of their respective wars, the U.S. swiftly sided with Ukraine and Israel and acted decisively to support these allies. I find it hard to picture Barack Obama doing the same: It would have violated the historicist narrative. Biden, immersed in narrative collapse, may have stumbled closer to reality than his mentor ever did.
The president has always been a transactional politician, reacting to situations according to two guiding principles. One is the conventional wisdom of Democratic Party grandees; this can turn problematic when the elites are divided, as they are today on Israel.
The other is his sense of self-importance. Biden is probably the neediest president in our history. He rarely waits for others to praise him—he’ll get there first himself. “They tell me I’m the first American president to travel to [Israel] during a war.” “I’m told I was the first American president to enter a war zone [Ukraine] not controlled by the United States military since Lincoln.” A shaky identity seems to inspire the neediness: Biden has been caught inventing personal anecdotes and plagiarizing the words of other political figures. While these aren’t flattering traits, they have opened a path out of inaction.
If Obama owned the golden future, Biden presides over a moment of terrible peril, an “inflection point” in which the forces of democracy, in retreat since Trump’s election, are making a stand against advancing authoritarians. At stake is “the direction of our future for generations to come.” Both Ukraine and Israel, democracies under attack, deserve the full measure of U.S. support. The Ukrainians fight for freedom “against Putin’s brutal war.” Hamas has “unleashed pure unadulterated evil in the world.” In this cosmic struggle, only the U.S., “the essential nation,” can rally the world to the cause of democracy—and, it’s strongly implied, only President Biden, who began his tenure by defeating Trump, can credibly lead the U.S. in the crusade against authoritarianism.
There’s truth in all of this. Ukraine and Israel merit assistance. It would be good for the world if Putin and Hamas were permanently defeated. That won’t happen without U.S. involvement. But we get nothing beyond glittering generalities—no articulation of our interests, no stacking of priorities, no hint of what we would do if, say, Ukraine were to succumb. We discover, in Biden’s words, a strong performative element: When he refers to the U.S. as “the arsenal of democracy,” he seems to be auditioning for the part of Franklin Roosevelt in a Masterpiece Theatre series. And the suspicion arises that, instead of a conversion to realism, we are looking at a new and more personal calculus of delusion.
The words certainly portray two very different wars. Ukraine gets unconditional love. Zelenskyy is a media hero, while Putin, the man who purportedly got Trump elected, is the ultimate villain to progressives. Biden can bask in the popularity of the war among the Democratic base, the sort of people who hang Ukrainian flags next to their “Hate Has No Home Here” signs. Opposition to funding the war by congressional Republicans just confirms the rightness of the cause.
Israel, conversely, has been weighed down with conditions. Israelis “must not be blinded by rage,” the president cautioned. “There must be no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade, and no reduction in territory,” he asserted. Both Biden and Blinken have demanded the unification of Gaza with the West Bank, presumably under the Palestinian Authority. It would be suicidal—and delusional—for Israel to accede to most of these requests.
The war in Gaza is deeply unpopular with progressives, young people and other segments of the Democratic coalition. According to the identity creed revered by Democratic elites, the Palestinians are the eternal victims while Israel is the colonizing oppressor. Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as the Israeli Trump—he has yet to receive an invitation to the Biden White House. Israel’s war to exterminate Hamas will be long and gruesome. Every civilian death, real or imagined, will be vividly captured and sensationalized by the media.
To his credit, President Biden so far has accepted the need for Israel to push on, but I wonder whether he will be able to withstand the growing pressure from his political left flank for a “permanent cease-fire.” My guess is that he won’t. Now that the recent cease-fire to exchange hostages has collapsed, expect him to call for another: There are always reasons. At a minimum, we will see a return to the Obama doctrine that equates passivity with peace. Worst case, if his political prospects continue to plummet in an election year, Biden could well find some pretext to pick a loud and gratifying fight with Netanyahu.
The Question of Responsibility
How responsible are the Obama-Biden policies for the proliferating troubles in the world? Since we lack alternate histories, the question is impossible to answer with any precision. But we do have the Trump interval: four years we can treat like the control group in an experiment. Neither Trump nor his surrogates possessed a grand strategic outlook. Trump himself fixated on trade grievances with countries like China and Mexico, but beyond that he improvised much as Biden has done—except on a different intuition of the world. That difference, I believe, might shed some light on the question of responsibility.
What jumps out from any review of the Trump years is that they were a parenthesis. A lot happened before and after, but inside the brackets there was relative quiet. Russia is a striking example. Obama saw the Russians return to the Mediterranean, swallow Crimea and attack Ukraine; Biden has had to deal with a full-scale invasion aimed at Ukraine’s destruction. Trump’s main concern with Russia was the accusation that he was Putin’s puppet. Many factors unrelated to Trump’s policies could explain this, but the divergence is undeniable.
The same holds true for Iran, the Middle East and the Muslim world in general. Obama waffled the response to the Iranian street protests and tolerated Iran’s capture of a U.S. Navy boat so he could obtain his questionable nuclear deal. He left Iraq wide open to ISIS, abandoned Syria to the Russians and devastated Libya. Biden severely botched the withdrawal from Afghanistan, managed to alienate both Saudi Arabia and Israel, then had to contend with the Hamas atrocities and the war in Gaza. Trump’s legacy in the region, by contrast, is the Abraham Accords between Israel and the Gulf emirates.
I could go on. A similar pattern can be detected in our relations with China and Europe, for example. But my intention here isn’t to lead a cheer for Trump, who was an inexperienced and inattentive foreign policy leader surrounded by an ever-shifting cast of mediocre appointees. I’m interested in the question of responsibility, which now dissolves into a simpler query: Why didn’t the world fall apart under Trump? The answer could be dumb luck. History, to the analyst’s despair, has a tendency to play favorites.
But there’s another possibility. Trump, the populist outsider, was forced to rely on institutional and political processes that, however decadent, were still grounded in experience. His wisdom was of the negative kind: In foreign affairs, he lacked the ambition, and probably the imagination, to reinvent reality according to his fondest desires. Against the grain of his personal and rhetorical excesses, Trump dealt with the world straight up. The lesson would be a truism in less obtuse times. For an American president to have a shot at success among the nations, friend and foe alike, a necessary precondition might just be the avoidance of willful blindness.