President Obama’s Foreign Policy Audacity Is Beyond Hope

Robert G. Kaufman Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University
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If the meek shall inherit the earth, President Obama belongs in a tiny apartment. Candidate Obama boasted on New Hampshire Public Radio in November 2007 that his becoming president would immediately improve America’s standing in the Islamic world. Obama envisaged himself pompously as a “bridge,” not only to reconcile the races at home, but America to the world, according to his admiring biographer David Remnick.

With distressing regularity, Obama has blamed most of America’s serious international problems on past sins and the belligerence of his predecessors rather than malevolent tyrannies menacing the U.S. and our democratic allies. Obama has pursued a reset with an authoritarian Putin, who has deftly exploited the president’s gullibility while bolstering the murderous Assad regime in Syria and striving mightily to reverse to the outcome of the Cold War in Europe, starting with Ukraine.

The military balance in the Western Pacific continues to deteriorate ominously as the president slashes the defense budget and treats an authoritarian China as  a partner for peace while Beijing has embarked on a massive comprehensive military buildup. The president and secretary of State John Kerry perpetually engage a revolutionary theocracy in while Iranian President Rouhani manipulates negotiations to tranquilize the West from stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Obama has antagonized Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia with his engagement of Iran and outreach to radical Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. His premature withdrawal from Iraq plunged the country into chaos and facilitated the rise of ISIS.

Yet the President has refused to take any responsibility for or learn from his administration’s serial foreign policy mistakes. Witness the audacity of the President’s interview with Steve Kroft, which 60 Minutes aired on September 28. The president obfuscated when Kroft asked Obama to reconcile the current war against ISIS with his 2013 State of the Union hailing American withdrawal from Iraq and pledging to move America “off permanent war footing.”

President Obama evaded Kroft’s question about the credibility gap between Obama’s claim two years ago of Al Qaeda being decimated and “al Qaeda offshoots controlling huge chunks of both Iraq and Syria.”

He held himself blameless for the disintegration of Iraq despite the recent admissions of his two former secretaries of defense — Robert Gates and Leon Panetta — that the United States left too soon. The president cavalierly ignored the damning implications of his own words impeaching his self-exoneration: “When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability to chart their own course,” said Obama who assailed prime Minister Maliki for squandering  the opportunity without regard to the absence of an American presence that heightened Iraq’s insecurity, increased its dependence on Iran, and unleashed Maliki’s worst instincts.

In his interview with Kroft, Obama also fobbed off the blame for “overestimating the Iraqi Army” and “underestimating ISIS” on U.S intelligence agencies. This is dishonorable and disingenuous. The president himself has a long history of discounting the danger of ISIS and other Islamist threats, including Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Libyan radicals who attacked the American facility in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, killing the ambassador.

The president rebuffed several Iraqi pleas in 2013 to strike ISIS with drones, according to Mark A. Theissen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. He described ISIS to David Remnick in a January 2014 interview published in the New Yorker as “a JV Team putting on Laker Uniforms … that does not make them Kobe Bryant.” Even after the savage beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff stunned the dovish national security team out of its complacence, the president continued to prevaricate until public opinion polls showed overwhelming support for stronger action and intense displeasure with the president’s passivity toward ISIS.

Nor does the President’s reiteration to Kroft of his categorical opposition to deploying combat troops arouse optimism that the Administration will persevere to defeat ISIS if the combination of American airpower,  advisors, and local forces on the ground fail to achieve it. “What happens if the Iraqis don’t or can’t fight,” Kroft inquired? “I am not going to speculate on failure at the moment,” Obama replied, hardly sounding  like FDR on the eve of D-Day. Yet most reputable analysts  insist on the need for American boots on the ground if the war against ISIS is to succeed.

Weighing in on the president’s strategy, Robert Gates, Obama’s former secretary of defense, has assailed the president’s plan: “The reality is that they’re not gonna be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depend on Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or Sunni tribes acting on their own … by continuing to insist that the U.S. will not put boots on the ground, the president in effect traps himself.”

What Obama told Kroft about Putin also defies reality. Russia has emerged victorious in Ukraine, not a vacillating NATO alliance or the United States, which has been unwilling to go beyond feeble and conditional sanctions to stop Putin’s bid to reconstitute a Russian empire. Yet Obama  has bizarrely credited his “firm line” with Russia for “imposing a cost on Putin, offering a genuine possibility of a diplomatic solution the  confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Obama also  dismissed the chance  of military confrontation between NATO and Russia, while continuing to encourage Putin to “abide by international norms.” Shudder to think what defeat looks like if Putin subverting Ukraine’s independence constitutes victory.

Obama’s 60 minutes interview feasts on audacity, but starves on hope that the president possesses the strength of character to concede error and reverse his reckless course.