What a mess. President Obama says he wants to take in at least 10,000 refugees from the Middle East. Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is sending fighter aircraft and troops to prop up a Syrian leader who Obama has said over and over again must go. The 50 or so Syrian rebels that we spent roughly $1 million apiece to train and equip have disappeared. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq are flooding Europe. There are even reports of chemical weapons being used again inside Syria and Iraq, which makes a complete joke of all the media fanfare that celebrated Obama’s “historic” deal on Syrian chemical weapons.
Most presidents are hurt by failures. Many learn from their mistakes and change course; Jimmy Carter’s view of the Soviet Union after the invasion of Afghanistan comes to mind.
But that’s not the case with Obama. He sees political opportunities lurking in the calamities of his own making. Every new crisis becomes an excuse to double down on the very policies that caused those crises in the first place. It has been Obama’s broader agenda all along to disengage U.S. influence and power in the world. Sadly, he uses every setback to weaken America’s position in the world even further.
Take Syria. It’s now clear that, for all his talk about a “red line,” Obama never wanted to do anything there. He lacked the stomach or the patience to build a Syrian rebel army. Predictably, things spun out of control, and, as the war worsened, America’s options narrowed.
But this suited Obama just fine. He knew there was little appetite for a direct U.S. military intervention in Syria. But he also knew that the more hopes for viable non-military options like building a Syrian rebel force were dashed, the more doing anything at all inside Syria looked futile. Either way, disengagement is advanced as the preferred policy, even though it is precisely the cause of the calamity.
Then there is Iran. Obama made it clear from day one that he wanted to be friends with Tehran. He not only refused to back the Green Revolution, but has now embraced a nuclear deal that will give Iran a U.S.-backed glide path to a nuclear weapon.
Apart from an ideological preference for appeasing America’s enemies, Obama’s overriding interest with respect to Iran is to prevent a U.S. military intervention. Absolutely nothing matters more than this. Give Iran an internationally recognized way to get a nuclear weapon, and it will be impossible for the U.S. or Israel to use force to stop them. At the same time, more instability and war caused by expanding Iranian influence will make direct U.S. military intervention infinitely more complicated and dangerous.
Either way, the war option is minimized if not eliminated. The Middle East may burn to the ground, but at least, according to Obama’s way of thinking, the U.S. military will not be called to put out the fires.
Similarly Obama’s handling of Russia plays into this “the worse, the better” strategy. His “reset” strategy clearly emboldened Mr. Putin to annex Crimea and invade Ukraine. Yet all that Team Obama could do was fret over the lack of options they had. Russia “now” had “escalation dominance,” as if Mr. Putin’s advantage had fallen from heaven. The more powerful Russia became, the more the administration talked about the futility of reacting—by arming the Ukrainians, for example.
It was a marvelously self-fulfilling prophecy. Weaken America’s position in the world, and then claim a further weakening is necessary to adjust to the “new realities” your own policies have created.
All sorts of straw men exist to rationalize this worldview. Chief among them is that America is so weak, and the utility of military power so diminished, that all we can do is hold diplomatic conferences, tinker with advanced technologies, and when things really get tough, launch a Twitter campaign.
Such are the bitter fruits of willful disengagement.
Originally published in The Washington Times.