July 26, 2021

On Foreign Policy, An Unteachable President

The president is Charlie Brown, and, no matter how many times Lucy pulls the football away, he just keeps on kicking.

Back during the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton and John McCain were both prone to criticizing Barack Obama’s lack of experience by saying that the presidency isn’t a position that lends itself to learning on the job. More than five years later, that’s the least of our concerns. Learning on the job would be a huge improvement for Obama.

Education, however, is not a priority for someone who thinks he already knows everything, which seems to be the default disposition of this president. When Obama came to office talking of a “reset” with Russia, a “new beginning” with the “Muslim world” and the receding of the “tides of war,” old Washington hands would knowingly smirk and say to themselves, “He’ll learn soon enough.” All of the disappointment they predicted has come to fruition — and yet the president hasn’t learned a damn thing.

The root of Obama’s foreign policy mishaps — whether failing to respond to the 2009 uprising in Iran, misreading the Arab Spring, failing to deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria or getting repeatedly rolled by Vladimir Putin, most recently with the Russian invasion of Ukraine — all have a common source: a fundamental misconception of what motivates authoritarian regimes and their leaders.

The entire basis of Obama’s foreign policy — not to mention Hillary Clinton’s so-called “smart diplomacy” (a term that, like most marketing exercises, was devoid of any real content) — has been an emphasis on international collegiality. From the days when candidate Obama pledged to meet, without preconditions, with the leaders of regimes such as Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, the implicit assumption of this administration has been that most of our international difficulties can be resolved through talking.

That’s a reasonable position if tensions result from misunderstanding or wounded pride. If the hostility is engendered by fundamentally antagonistic goals and beliefs, however, it’s not going to get you anywhere. Seriously, ask anyone who’s ever gone through divorce proceedings.

Thus, when Obama told authoritarian regimes, in his first inaugural address, “that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he left a hugely important question unanswered: What if they don’t want to unclench their fist?

What if the mullahs in Iran would rather have the prestige and heightened defense — against the West, Israel and the Sunni countries of the Middle East — that comes with nuclear weapons than the goodwill of the United States? What if radical Islam is motivated more by a desire to bring the West to its knees than to find an accommodation with it? What if Vladimir Putin would rather reconstitute as much of the old Soviet Union as he can rather than get to host the G-8 Summit? These are thoughts Obama never seems to have entertained.

Just as bad, the president’s assumption of goodwill has repeatedly led him to take the fool’s end of the bargain, tolerating misbehavior today so as not to ruin future deals that inevitably fail to materialize.

Obama ignored the 2009 uprisings in Iran because he held out hopes for making diplomatic inroads with the regime in Tehran. Half a decade later, the mullahs are still embarrassing him on the world stage on a regular basis.

Not wanting to act on the commitment he made to intervene in Syria if chemical weapons were used, the president agreed to a deal in which the Assad regime in Damascus agreed to dispose of the weapons — never considering, apparently, that leaders willing to gas their own people couldn’t be counted on to keep their promises.

Today, he continues to dither on Russia’s aggression partially because he believes Putin will be essential in reaching an accommodation with Iran. There’s no limit to the abuse this president will take if told that you will gladly pay him Tuesday for a hamburger today.

Despite all those disappointments, however, Obama has never wised up. The president is Charlie Brown, and, no matter how many times Lucy pulls the football away, he just keeps on kicking.

His advisors vainly deflect criticism of their failures by insisting that their boss is playing “the long game.” One can be forgiven for asking “exactly how long?” At a certain point, the difference between playing possum and actually being dead becomes imperceptible.

On Tuesday, Obama was widely mocked when he delivered what was supposed to be a speech getting tough on Russia from an elementary school in Washington D.C., standing atop a brightly colored children’s carpet with the alphabet on it. It was equal parts embarrassing and appropriate. This is a president whose foreign policy continues to be characterized by grade school mistakes. The setting only underscored that point.

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