Walking the Tightrope Reluctantly

A friend sent me a link to Peter Baker’s recent article in The New York Times, “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way” (August 15, 2014). You can read it for yourself. This was my initial reaction:

All the world’s a stage…

…and whether the play’s a tragedy, or not, seems to depend on how its critics (the media) depict it.

Obama’s policy toward the Middle East seems to have been based on wishful thinking about rapprochement with “progressives” in the Middle East. His underlying “strategy” of disengagement hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially because it’s consistent with the continued shrinkage of U.S. military power.

This mixture of bumbling and willful impotence could only have invited aggressive moves — even  though not aimed directly at the U.S. Thus Putin’s adventures and the growing militancy of China may seem to flow from Obama’s handling of foreign and defense policy. Would such things have happened anyway? Perhaps. They certainly did in the past, and in ways more directly threatening to U.S. interests (from the Berlin blockade to the Cuban missile crisis). But memories are short, and it’s easy to think of the relatively quiescent decade after the first Gulf War as the norm.

If the aggressiveness continues, and especially if it’s aimed more directly at U.S. interests, the next administration — and the public — will come face to face with the crucial choice: Withdraw more completely or reengage (with requisite rearmament). Obama has tried to walk a tightrope between the two alternatives, but it’s a tightrope that can’t be walked for long.

Having given the matter more thought, I must add that Obama is walking the tightrope reluctantly. He cannot overtly abandon the world stage and leave American interests entirely unprotected. That way lies greater disgrace than he is almost certain to endure, if not removal from office.

But aside from that consideration — and no other — Obama would make America into a “pitiful, helpless giant.” I turn (not for the first time) to Norman Podhoretz:

… [A]s astute a foreign observer as Conrad Black can flatly say that, “Not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and before that the fall of France in 1940, has there been so swift an erosion of the world influence of a Great Power as we are witnessing with the United States.”

Yet if this is indeed the pass to which Mr. Obama has led us—and I think it is—let me suggest that it signifies not how incompetent and amateurish the president is, but how skillful. His foreign policy, far from a dismal failure, is a brilliant success as measured by what he intended all along to accomplish….

… As a left-wing radical, Mr. Obama believed that the United States had almost always been a retrograde and destructive force in world affairs. Accordingly, the fundamental transformation he wished to achieve here was to reduce the country’s power and influence. And just as he had to fend off the still-toxic socialist label at home, so he had to take care not to be stuck with the equally toxic “isolationist” label abroad.

This he did by camouflaging his retreats from the responsibilities bred by foreign entanglements as a new form of “engagement.” At the same time, he relied on the war-weariness of the American people and the rise of isolationist sentiment (which, to be sure, dared not speak its name) on the left and right to get away with drastic cuts in the defense budget, with exiting entirely from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with “leading from behind” or using drones instead of troops whenever he was politically forced into military action.

The consequent erosion of American power was going very nicely when the unfortunately named Arab Spring presented the president with several juicy opportunities to speed up the process. First in Egypt, his incoherent moves resulted in a complete loss of American influence, and now, thanks to his handling of the Syrian crisis, he is bringing about a greater diminution of American power than he probably envisaged even in his wildest radical dreams.

For this fulfillment of his dearest political wishes, Mr. Obama is evidently willing to pay the price of a sullied reputation. In that sense, he is by his own lights sacrificing himself for what he imagines is the good of the nation of which he is the president, and also to the benefit of the world, of which he loves proclaiming himself a citizen….

No doubt he will either deny that anything has gone wrong, or failing that, he will resort to his favorite tactic of blaming others—Congress or the Republicans or Rush Limbaugh. But what is also almost certain is that he will refuse to change course and do the things that will be necessary to restore U.S. power and influence.

And so we can only pray that the hole he will go on digging will not be too deep for his successor to pull us out, as Ronald Reagan managed to do when he followed a president into the White House whom Mr. Obama so uncannily resembles. (“Obama’s Successful Foreign Failure,” The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2013)

Jackson Diehl offers wise counsel about the situation in Iraq, where Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory: “To fix foreign policy mistakes, President Obama must first admit them” (The Washington Post, August 14, 2014). But the headline says it all — Obama won’t admit his deliberate “mistakes” in Iraq, or anywhere else.

No, he’d rather play the victim of G.W. Bush’s decisions and world events beyond his control. (See Peter Wehner’s “Obama Still Feeling Sorry for Himself,” Commentary, August 17, 2014.) Petulant whining is unattractive, but it’s better (for Obama) to be called a whiner than to be outed as a traitor.

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Related reading:
James A. (Ace) Lyons (Admiral, USN, retired), “The fallout from foreign policy malfeasance and nonfeasance,” The Washington Times, August 14, 2014)
Ed Lasky, “Obama’s Willful Blindness,” American Thinker, August 25, 2014

Related posts:
Why Sovereignty?
Liberalism and Sovereignty
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
The World Turned Upside Down
Defense Spending: One More Time
The Fall and Rise of American Empire
Presidential Treason