Two successful assassinations — those of Awlaki and bin Laden — have persuaded some that President Obama, whatever his domestic failures, has presided over a successful foreign policy. This is way too generous. In fact, (with the exception of targeted assassinations and the surge in Afghanistan) the president seems to conduct foreign policy based on seat-of-the-pants responses to events, rather than relying on any overarching strategy. And his reactions to events are more often based upon reversing what he regards as past American sins than on pursuing America’s interests in the world.
This first became evident when the Iranian street erupted in 2009. There is no regime in the world that represents a greater threat to the lives of Americans than Iran’s. The mullahs have shed more American blood than any entity except al-Qaeda (and they have assisted al-Qaeda) over the course of the past three decades. Iran constantly plots to damage the U.S. through sponsoring terror groups, allying with American enemies like Hugo Chávez, and supplying and training the Iraqi militias and Taliban who in turn killed Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fall of that regime would be the greatest victory imaginable against worldwide terror (to say nothing of what it would do for Iranians). Yet when the regime was rocked by weeks of protests, Obama let the opportunity to support the demonstrators (and possibly affect the outcome) slip through his fingers.
He couldn’t let go of the idea that his role was to prove to the Iranian leadership that, unlike past U.S. leaders such as the “arrogant” Dwight Eisenhower who intervened in Iran in the 1950s, Obama respected them and meant them no harm.
Similarly, as the uprising in Syria has unfolded over the past six months, the president has been passive. Previous administrations had regarded Syria, Iran’s chief client in the Arab world and another key sponsor of terror, as a hostile power. The Obama administration, whose chief aim was to say goodbye to all that, courted the regime, calling Bashar al-Assad a “reformer.” The president sent an ambassador, and did not recall him even when the regime used guns and tanks against unarmed demonstrators. (Amb. Robert Ford has done the best he could under the circumstances, lending his support to the protesters.)
The Assad regime has so far killed more than 3,000 Syrians and wounded many more. The “reformer” has also tortured many regime opponents.
Yet the Obama administration has failed to take the kind of steps that might yield an outcome favorable to U.S. interests (or those of the Syrian people). The U.S. has imposed sanctions on the top leadership, but these are wrist slaps, and have been completely ineffective.
The contrast with Libya is instructive. Though Qaddafi was a vicious tyrant, he had long since ceased to be a threat to the U.S. Following the Iraq War, he had voluntarily relinquished his weapons-of-mass-destruction program and had been relatively quiescent on the world stage. Yet when he threatened his own people, President Obama proved willing to spend billions in a “war of choice” to help remove him. Something about a “duty to protect.” Yet that duty did not apply to Syria or Iran.
Just weeks after discovering that Iran was plotting a massive terror attack in Washington, D.C., President Obama not only failed to respond but has handed the Iranians a huge gift in the form of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Now President Obama is embarking on another humanitarian military intervention — sending 100 U.S. soldiers to join the effort to destroy the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa. There is no doubt that the LRA is a particularly nasty piece of work — an armed militia that engages in kidnapping, rape, murder, and torture. It’s heartbreaking, but alas, not by any means unique around the globe. What is the rationale for American intervention? President Obama explained to Congress that “I believe that deploying these U.S. armed forces furthers U.S. national security interests and foreign policy.” Keeping a stabilizing force in Iraq apparently does not.
The Obama Doctrine for intervention would appear then to be: Intervene only where American interests are in no way implicated. But in situations such as those in Iran and Syria, where intervention of some kind would serve American strategic interests as well as humanitarian concerns, hold back.