Maybe Mr Obama feels that a world less reliant on America is a good thing. But in the end, American disengagement is proving disastrous, writes Michael Young
US policy reflects America’s lack of interest in the world
Hardly a day goes by in the United States without the publication of a commentary critical of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The general tenor of these pieces is that Mr Obama, in reducing American intervention overseas, has created a dangerous void that threatens American interests.
Yet the American president is under little pressure at home to change his ways. Polls suggest that a significant percentage of his countrymen are even more reluctant to intervene in the world than he is. For instance, a recent Politico poll showed that a substantial majority of Americans, around two-thirds, supported either current levels of American involvement or less involvement in Syria, Iraq or Ukraine.
Respondents were asked which of two statements came closest to their own view: “US military actions should be limited to direct threats to our national security” or “As the world’s moral leader, the US has a responsibility to use its military to protect democracy around the globe.” Sixty seven per cent cited the first statement, but only 22 per cent cited the second.
In terms of his foreign policy, Mr Obama seems to have read the polls carefully. His critics, while they may often be correct about the president’s inadequacies internationally, hold a minority view. Their criticism seems to be an elite reaction more than anything else, with only two per cent of respondents citing foreign policy as the issue that concerns them the most.
His foreign policy statements notwithstanding, Mr Obama has more often than not used the “pursuit of national interests” as an excuse to do nothing. Whenever the president has sensed he may be pushed into a commitment overseas he does not like, his reaction has been to say that he will not intervene because his intention is to pursue only American interests.
That was, for instance, implicit in the argument he used with journalist and former Democratic Party adviser George Stephanopoulos in September 2013, when he described the conflict in Syria as “somebody else’s civil war”. Mr Obama, having just struck a deal with Russia, had reversed a decision to strike against the Syrian regime after it used chemical weapons against civilians. He argued that the US could not affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict militarily.
But Mr Obama’s standoffish attitude in Syria, like that in Iraq, has come back to haunt him. Today, the region and the world face a threat from the Islamic State, which has carved out a large and lucrative territory between Iraq and Syria, one far more dangerous than Al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan.
Yet Mr Obama has done virtually nothing about it. How ironic when the president claimed in 2012 to have defeated Al Qaeda and used this as one of his central campaign slogans.
In the same way that Mr Obama has used the defence of American interests benchmark as an excuse to sidestep action abroad, so too has he thrown up another canard: that those pushing for intervention invariably seek military intervention. But the reality is, in Syria most notably, that other options always existed, yet the administration never seriously investigated them.
Mr Obama’s pattern of avoidance in the world, his clear intention to put most of his energies into domestic American concerns, above all the economy, has come with a hefty price tag: a growing vacuum, most ominously in the Middle East, that has so destabilised the region that America and Europe may be endangered. The US administration admits to this risk, but not to its responsibility for helping bring it about.
Even outside the Middle East, in Asia and Europe, the Obama administration has alienated close allies with its combination of indolence and vacillation. Mr Obama often seems so deliberate in taking his decisions that little gets done. And so, frustrated allies compensate by pursuing their own agendas, which sometimes only further adds to the ambient instability.
For a president who once said his administration would pursue a rules-based international order and would engage in multilateralism to achieve this, what we are seeing today is precisely the opposite. In the Middle East and Asia, multilateral structures are under great stress, while the role Washington once played as mediator and balancer has all but disappeared.
As attitudes in America show, however, there was much in the George W Bush years that disturbed Americans – above all the high cost of foreign wars that strained resources at home, and the poor management of domestic crises. Yet reversing the Bush administration’s policies never required so radical an overhaul of foreign policy as Mr Obama has done.
What we are witnessing is more than an effort to deal with the errors of the Bush years. Rather, Mr Obama has offered a radically new philosophy outlining an American retreat from global affairs – an apparent admission that the empire is in decline, and that America, and the world, must adapt. This determinism is not only self-fulfilling in accelerating America’s waning, it is creating the volatility Mr Obama sought to avoid.
If that is Mr Obama’s vision, then it displays great hubris. The president is acting as if 60 years of American global dominance can simply be reduced without consequences. Nor has the administration formulated a systematic foreign policy strategy to prepare for such a direction. Mr Obama’s world view, if it can even be called that, remains exceptionally shallow.
Maybe the president feels that a world less reliant on America is a good thing. He could be right. But in the interim, American disengagement is proving disastrous, and all Mr Obama’s declarations about America’s interests sound utterly empty.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling