In publicizing the President’s State of the Union address, Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett announced that one of the achievements of which the administration was most proud in its first year in office was its action to repair “badly frayed global alliances” and “to restore America’s leadership in the world.” That leadership was not much in evidence in the President’s speech, which is only fitting, because it has been lacking in reality as well.
The President name-checked the obvious foreign crises. Haiti, predictably, took pride of place, and here, at least, the administration does have something to be proud of. Its response is no more than previous administrations would have done, and it comes after the U.S. defaulted on leadership by turning the management of Haiti over to the UN in the mid-1990s, but it was prompt and substantial.
Some on the left, predictably, have criticized the President for his action, but in an otherwise gloomy year for American leadership, it was a response worthy of the applause it received.
The rest of the world passed by in very quick review. What was striking about the President’s claims of unity and determination on Iran and Afghanistan is how completely they are contradicted by the facts, and even by his own words. The Administration’s policy on Iran is in tatters: the open hand to Iran he extended has been repeatedly smacked away, and, spite of the President’s optimistic assertions to the contrary, the reset of relations with Russia has not inclined Moscow – never mind Beijing – to support sanctions. Nor did the President recognize that his dream of abolishing nuclear weapons does absolutely nothing to persuade the Iranians to follow suit. And while the President’s glowing words about America’s need to “stand on the side of freedom and human dignity” were well put and true, they would have rung even truer if the administration had taken even one single, solitary action to support the protesters in Iran in June, instead of throwing them to the wolves.
On Afghanistan, the President’s early belief that he would succeed in bringing the Europeans into the fight simply by virtue of not being George W. Bush has been comprehensively crushed. Only yesterday French President Sarkozy announced, in advance of a much hyped London summit on Afghanistan, that France had no interest in sending any more troops to Afghanistan, in spite of his own statement that nuclear-armed Pakistan would fall if the Taliban win in Afghanistan. The President paid this no attention, and did not help his own cause by firmly reiterating his arbitrary July 2011 deadline to begin to put Afghan forces in the lead.
The awkward fact is that, while the President has done a great deal of traveling, he does not have a single substantial foreign policy achievement to his credit, or any stronger partnerships abroad to celebrate. The administration has gone out of its way to ignore and insult Britain, whose forces are fighting side by side with America’s in Afghanistan, and relations with other friends old and new, from Japan to Poland to India, are at a low ebb. It is amazing but true that the U.S.’s relations with every single one of its democratic allies are worse now than they were when George W. Bush left office.
For the past twelve months, conservatives have made one fundamental critique of the President’s foreign policy: it mistakes words for substance and personality for policy. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize is delightful, but receiving it for nothing except promises only validated the conservative critique. Recently, the President acknowledged that his critics had it right all along. In an interview with Politico about the Middle East, the President stated: “This is just really hard. . . . it was very hard for [the Israelis and Palestinians] to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so.”
Yes, Mr. President, the Middle East is hard. But so is Russia. So is Afghanistan. So are Venezuela, China, Pakistan, and Iran. They’re all hard. The easy problems never get to the White House. And all of the hard problems have something in common: they are created by people, states, and institutions with ideas and interests of their own. They will not be taken in fantasies about engagement or deluded by Oval Office rhetoric into abandoning policies they have pursued for years.
There is a place for rhetoric in the making of American foreign policy, which must be based on clear principles, clearly enunciated.
But, as Sarkozy put it in September, it is “incredibly naive and grossly egotistical” for the President to believe that the fate of American leadership, and America’s alliances, rests solely on the charismatic appeal of his words and his personality around the world.
The mistake the President has acknowledged about his Middle East policy is central to his foreign policy as a whole. The United States, and the world, needs a lot less of Obama the symbol, and a lot more of Obama the President. Unfortunately, last night’s speech did not give either the nation or the world what it needs.