Defeat can lead to defeatism, or it can lead to constructive rethinking. Which path will President Obama take after setbacks overseas?
By defeat, I do not mean, as some Obama critics would have it, that the U.S. president “lost Crimea.” The bad guy there is Vladimir Putin, not Barack Obama, just as the bad guy in Syria is Bashar Assad.
There was no viable military option that could have discouraged Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and there is no military option to reverse it. Even the now-ridiculed “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations was worth a try.
But while Putin’s annexation of Crimea is not Obama’s fault, it does starkly illustrate that the world Obama confronts today is not the world he expected to lead.
The president came into office believing that military assets were a 19th-century measure of power, of dwindling relevance in the 21st century.
He believed that diplomacy could solve problems that George W. Bush had ignored, created or exacerbated; that the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons was perhaps the United States’ most important goal; that economic reconstruction at home had to take precedence over — and was a necessary prerequisite for — leadership abroad.
His policies have reflected these understandings: Total pullout from Iraq. An Afghanistan withdrawal schedule untethered to conditions on the ground. A hasty departure from Libya after helping to depose its dictator. No meaningful assistance to the opposition in Syria.
Most of all, Obama wanted to concentrate on what he called “nation-building at home.” He told the United Nations last fall that promoting democracy and free trade in the Middle East was no longer a “core interest” of U.S. foreign policy.
The scaling back of ambition resonated with U.S. public opinion. But the effects have not been as hoped.
As the United States retrenched, the world became more dangerous.
• China continued a traditional — 19th-century, Secretary of State John F. Kerry might call it — military build-up, accompanied by aggressive territorial assertions in East and Southeast Asia.
• North Korea’s nuclear buildup proceeded unchecked. Egypt’s government is more repressive than in Hosni Mubarak’s days — and less friendly to the United States.
• In Syria, Obama was confident two years ago that Assad’s “days are numbered,” as he told Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview in the Atlantic. “It’s a matter not of if, but when.” He periodically promised, but never delivered, substantial arms and training for moderate forces opposed to Assad.
Now Putin has engineered the baldest violation of state sovereignty since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Obama has responded sensibly with sanctions aimed at Putin’s inner circle and promises to bolster Ukraine. You can argue whether he has calibrated exactly right, but he has appropriately engaged with and led the United States’ European partners.
But these are early steps — and they are also only tactical steps. As the administration refashions its policy toward a changed Europe, will it reexamine its broader strategy, too? Will Obama question his confidence that the United States can safely pull back from the world?
The instinctive White House response will be to head into the political bunker: to deny that it ever displayed isolationist tendencies while painting critics as wild-eyed warmongers.
This reflexive belligerence is understandable given that Obama’s political enemies will happily use overseas setbacks to score points.
But the stakes are too high to leave the debate in those trenches. Tempting as it may be, the United States doesn’t get to choose between nation-building at home and leadership abroad — it has to do both. With almost three years left in his presidency, it’s not too late for Obama to change course.
Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.
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