The end of a Kumbaya foreign policy?

Patrick Basham Director, Democracy Institute
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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.

While pushing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a loyal American ally, out of office, Obama failed to appreciate that the political vacuum in Cairo would be filled by Islamists whose illiberal, chauvinistic agenda threatens both regional stability and the security of Egypt’s religious minorities.

Shortly thereafter, and from a safe distance, the U.S. joined its N.A.T.O. allies in taking sides in the Libyan civil war, which ultimately ensured dictator Muammar Gadhafi’s demise. Of course, little consideration was given to what or who would replace Gadhafi.

It’s Obama’s dangerous desire to pick winners and losers in the Middle East that first led one of his advisers to describe the president’s Libyan policy as “leading from behind.”

The tragedy in Benghazi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascension to power in Egypt, and the Syrian regime’s killing of tens of thousands of its citizens are only three of the developments that to date illustrate the Arab Spring’s sad failure.

Farther afield, Obama has tried to induce expansionist China to be a responsible stakeholder in world affairs. He has continued Bush’s policy of concession and inducement to Beijing. But Obama hasn’t fared any better than his much-maligned predecessor: U.S.-China relations remain tetchy, at best.

Obama conspicuously “reset” relations with Russia but, so far, to little avail. American concessions on missile defense haven’t been reciprocated, most notably in Russia’s continuing opposition to Western efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program and her continuing support for the Assad regime in Damascus.

This “let’s talk this out” approach exemplifies how Obama implicitly adheres to the contemporary Western European view that parochial, unsophisticated America has done its best foreign policy work when its energies and instincts are suitably moderated and appropriately channeled by worldly, sage allies.

Consequently, under Obama’s “leadership” the U.S. has morphed from the dangerous, thankless, and at times counterproductive role as global policeman, to the idealistic and naïve role as global social worker. Obama has presented himself less as the nation’s commander-in-chief and more as the nation’s apologist-in-chief. It’s an increasingly unseemly sight.

The president has hurt America’s interests abroad, along with those of her allies. Ever the liberal idealist, Obama still hasn’t learned that neither America’s friends nor her enemies respond particularly well to empty rhetoric. But, they do respond to strength and to clarity of purpose.

A very long week from now, voters decide whether the president’s failed experiment with Kumbaya foreign policymaking continues down its dangerous path. Or, do they exchange feel-good group hugs on a multilateral mountain-top for a more traditional, adult foreign policy?

They may choose the latter approach, as it possesses a singular advantage. It exists in the real world.

Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute, a London- and Washington-based think tank, and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar.