President Obama’s jet flew right over the Middle East and landed in India. Maybe that’s what the president should have done during his State of the Union speech when he got to the part when he claimed that, all in all, his foreign policy is smart and successful.
Oddly, Obama didn’t mention India or many other parts of the world. It made for an awkward display. That’s because while Obama can rightly point to tangible progress on the economy and some interesting ideas on domestic policy, his foreign policy is nothing to brag about.
Just as he was speaking, the government of Yemen, an important ally in the fight against Islamist extremists, was under siege. Yemen, the headquarters of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — the group that organized the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris — is now a failed state; the government toppled by an Iran-affiliated militia, which is fighting not just the government but also al Qaida. As in Syria, the United States could find itself with only bad choices.
If power is the ability to produce your desired outcomes, America’s might has visibly eroded. And today, despite the president’s State of the Union claim that a new style of global American leadership is producing results, the fact is that the outcomes America seeks simply are not materializing.
“The question,” the president said, “is not whether America leads in the world, but how.” I would say the question is not how America leads but what results its strategy is achieving.
I suspect Obama would have preferred to keep quiet on foreign policy, except perhaps on the topic of Cuba, where he acted with a measure of boldness, and opinion polls say the public approves.
The rest of the world, the rest of America’s foreign policy, doesn’t have much to offer in the way of positive results.
In the past few years, a sizable section of the Middle East has spiraled into a vortex of political chaos, ideological extremism and humanitarian catastrophe.
Obama claimed that he has avoided making “rash decisions,” or “reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads.” But his calculated inaction in Syria, his inexplicable delay in helping what started as a pro-democracy movement, allowed those who supported extremism and tyranny to win the day.
While Obama stood back, Iran sent its generals (one killed in Syria a few days ago) and its Hezbollah allies to back the dictatorship of Bashar Assad, while radical Islamist groups obliterated the Syrian moderate camp. Now America has no one to support. Iran’s friend Assad remains in control of part of the country, and the brutal ISIS has extended its reach deep into Iraq.
Even mentioning Iraq must have been difficult. Recent months saw what could have easily become the end of the Iraqi state, as ISIS burst out of Syria and easily conquered large swaths of Iraqi territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. To this day the Baghdad government has no control over much of the country.
We can debate whether or not that is Obama’s fault, but it is hardly the sign of a foreign policy that is producing results.
More than 200,000 people have been killed in Syria, millions are refugees and millions more have been internally displaced. It’s a humanitarian calamity and a strategic disaster. The poison has already left people dead in Paris, Sydney, Ottawa, Brussels and elsewhere.
If Obama can point to any successes, as he did when he noted that Russia’s economy is “in tatters,” it is because of the collapse in oil prices more than because of his actions. In fact, Russia remains firmly in control of Crimea, which legally belongs to Ukraine, and its supporters are fighting Ukrainian forces in the east of the country.
Obama touted the achievements of American diplomacy and said there is a chance there will be an agreement by this spring to reach an agreement with Tehran on its nuclear program. His claim that Iran has suspended its nuclear program is plainly false. Uranium enrichment to 5 percent continues, and stockpiles are growing steadily.
Unfortunately, Obama didn’t mention new horizons, such as the potential for a major new alliance with India, a power of the future.
With two years left in his presidency, there is still time for a change of fortunes and a burnished legacy. But the fact, right now, is that the most noteworthy of the Obama administration’s actions on the global stage is his failure to even try to nudge Syria toward a less-catastrophic outcome.