If “a week is a long time in politics,” as the late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson maintained, then 12 years is an apparent eternity.
It’s remarkable to recall that in the 2000 presidential campaign candidate George W. Bush called for a “humble” U.S. foreign policy. He argued that America should no longer be the global policeman, and that America shouldn’t be in the nation-building business.
The events of 9/11 persuaded President Bush that humility was no longer in America’s strategic interest. Seven years later, the Kumbaya candidate, Barack Obama, was elected to succeed Bush in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war, his conciliatory approach to foreign policymaking, and his preference for softer, gentler counterterrorism.
Obama apparently neutralized foreign policy as an election issue with the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden’s death brought Obama universal and well-deserved praise.
Of course, the great irony is that the intelligence gathering that made possible Obama’s principal (perhaps, only tangible) foreign policy success directly resulted from Bush-era enhanced interrogation techniques that candidate Obama had found so abhorrent.
But, then Benghazi happened. The 9/11 anniversary Islamic terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya confirmed the timeless wisdom imparted by Harold Macmillan, the former British leader. He warned that, “Events, my dear boy, events” are the greatest threat to any would-be statesman’s political survival.
The Obama administration’s pre-attack mismanagement of its consulate’s security needs, in tandem with the White House’s post-attack misinformation campaign, demonstrated stunning ignorance, sheer incompetence, and a shocking willingness to dissemble. These collective failings eliminated Obama’s once-impregnable lead on foreign policy.
Even before the Benghazi debacle, the Obama-wins-on-foreign-policy view was decidedly premature. The very high hopes, both at home and abroad, that greeted Obama’s election were soon dashed and his early diplomatic charm quickly faded. In hindsight, the rock star-style reception that candidate Obama received in Berlin in July 2008 represented the pinnacle of his global influence.
Before Benghazi, Obama’s supporters pointed to two foreign policy successes — ending the Iraq war and the Arab Spring — in addition to bin Laden’s death.
The last American troops left Iraq in December 2011, concluding an eight-year military involvement. Yet, Obama failed to achieve even his own rather limited aim of reaching an agreement with Iraqi leaders to leave several thousand U.S. troops behind as a counterweight against political instability. The recent escalation in sectarian violence is a reminder that Obama was unable to leave Iraq in better shape than he found it.