Looking back on Barack Obama’s presidency, which expires next year, Walter Russell Mead, a centrist observer of American politics, argues in The American Interest that this president has failed to balance “a commitment to human rights and the niceties of American liberal ideology with a strong policy in defense of basic American security interests.”
The result, he argues, is a world “less safe for both human rights and for American security.”
Those are strong words and Mead doesn’t always convince when he tries to back them up.
He sees many failures:
The reconciliation with the Sunni world? The reset with Russia? Stabilizing the Middle East by tilting toward Iran? The Libya invasion? The Syria abstention? The “pivot to Asia” was supposed to be the centerpiece of Obama’s global strategy; instead the waning months of the Obama Administration have seen an important American ally pivot toward China in the most public and humiliating way possible.
This is not altogether wrong. The “reset” with Russia was naive. Obama betted on Dmitri Medvedev and he better wrong. He never understood Vladimir Putin. The intervention in Libya was halfhearted and Western allies did not think through the aftermath — which is especially damning given how critical Obama (rightly) was about the Bush Administration’s lack of postwar planning in Iraq.
But the Democrat’s record is more mixed in the other areas Mead lists, where he overlooks the agency of the foreign governments and leaders involved.
He didn’t start the fire
Start with what Mead calls the “reconciliation” with the Sunni world. When he came to power in 2009, Obama attempted to repair relations with the Arabs and Turks; relations that his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, had poisoned by invading Iraq and inadvertently shifting the balance of power in the Middle East in Iran’s favor by removing one of its most powerful Sunni opponents.
Obama’s task was never easy. Mistrust of American intentions historically runs high in the region while the effects of the Iraq War could not be reversed.
It’s not that Obama “tilted” toward Iran; that country was bound to take advantage of the vacuum America’s war had created in Mesopotamia.
Nor did Obama create the economic and societal malaise that led to the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Obama’s, like the administrations that came before it, had urged its allies to modernize their economies and their political systems in order to meet the aspirations of especially their young people.
But, as they had for decades, regimes like Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s ignored such advice — the stuff Mead disparagingly describes as “the niceties of American liberal ideology” — until it was too late.
Should we now blame Obama for the state of the region?
There are fair criticisms to be made of the way he handled the war in Libya. Time will tell if his decision not to intervene more forcefully in Syria (the United States have armed proxies there; calling this an “abstention” is misleading) was the right one. For the moment, it looks to have mainly benefited Iran and Russia.
The Middle East may be in worse shape today than it was when Obama took office; to blame him for this is to give every regional actor with poor judgement or bad intentions, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the royal family in Saudi Arabia or the mullahs in Iran or Bashar al-Assad, a pass.
Then Asia. The only concrete failure of Obama’s policy Mead can point to there is the bizarre behavior of the Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, who, on a recent visit to Beijing, promised to “realign” his island nation with China.
Two days after Mead published his column, however, Duterte walked back those comments, saying he didn’t really mean it when he vowed to “separate” the Philippines from the United States.
“As in separation, what I was really saying was separation of foreign policy,” he said. “In the past, and until I became president, we always follow what the United States would give the cue.”
No doubt Duterte is a less reliably ally than his predecessors, but the Filipino version of Donald Trump is so far more talk than action. He has insulted Obama (and just about every other foreigner who has criticized him, including the pope). He has threatened to do damage to the alliance, but to argue, as Mead does, that this amounts to a “Filipino defection” is over the top. To call this, as Mead does, a “triumph” for China is way premature — and it assumes Sino-American relations are a zero-sum game, in which one nation’s gains must necessary come at the expense of the other, which is exactly the mindset Obama wants to avoid.
Mead argues that American adversaries have reached the conclusion that this administration is “unable or unwilling to respond forcefully to provocations.” But he is so distracted by the theatrics of international relations that he glosses over the things Obama has done in response to actual provocations, as opposed to words.
This American president isn’t going to make all Filipinos suffer for Duterte’s bad mouth. That is not the way he, or a superpower, behaves.
But when China unilaterally declares an “air defense identification zone” over the East China Sea, including over islands that are also claimed by America’s ally, Japan, Obama will order a couple of bombers to fly straight through it.
When China harasses the coast guards and fishing boats of smaller nations around the South China Sea, the United States will send its navy in and make a mockery of China’s revisionist border claims in the area.
When Iranian-backed militias in Yemen fire at naval and commercial vessels traversing the Red Sea, the United States will lob cruise missiles at them
And when radical Islamists anywhere are plotting to attack the United States, they better watch the skies. Obama has ordered more assassinations of terrorists by drone strike than any leader in history.
What Obama will not do is shake his fist and give an angry speech to voice his displeasures. Perhaps that would impress the strongman in the Kremlin and some royals in the desert of Arabia, but if they, like Mead, would confuse such antics for power, how much is that Obama’s fault and how much is it theirs?