Top Stories of the Year: #2
At the end of last year, I concluded that foreign policy in 2012 had been “less a story about what is happening than a story about what is not happening—and what is not going to happen.”
Barack Obama is committed, on principle, to being a spectator rather than an actor on the world stage. And perhaps more to the point, there’s not much we can do about it. The president has very wide authority over foreign policy. Congress can prevent him from doing certain things, but the one thing it can’t prevent him from doing is nothing. If he doesn’t choose to act, Congress has no real means to force him.
That makes commentary on foreign policy far less urgent, for now. The purpose of talking about foreign policy is the hope of influencing the powers that be to do the right thing. Since it is pretty much foreordained that President Obama will do nothing, this is a story that will remain on the back burner—until, inevitably, it leads to a crisis. Waiting for such a crisis is the primary foreign policy task of the coming year.
The crisis has come, but in the worst possible way. The crisis is the Obama administration’s own actions, and that is the second biggest story of 2013.
I predicted that the crisis would come from the contradiction of “leading from behind.”
The unprecedented global reach of our power, our influence, and our interests means that we don’t have the option of sitting back and only doing things quietly behind the scenes. So when we do refuse to take the initiative, we are not “leading from behind.” A Lebanese columnist, bitter at our passivity on the uprising in Syria, provides a better term: we are “following from the front.” We are the world’s leader and giant, sitting around waiting for somebody else to take the initiative and do something.
What we’ve learned in 2013 is that America does not have option of remaining passive. If we don’t want to take action to assert our interests, to support our friends and oppose our enemies—then we will eventually have to take active measures to sacrifice our interests, support our enemies, and oppose our friends.
This is exactly what has happened, and the key turning point was the deal President Obama made with Syria. In the space of a few weeks, he went from a garish display of hawkishness, advocating a unilateral attack on Syria without congressional approval, to accepting a Russian deal that makes us into an ally of the Assad regime.
One Middle Eastern analyst recently urged, “Don’t Get in Bed with Assad.”
One might think that America’s policy toward Syria couldn’t get any worse, but the rise of extremists there is generating dangerous thinking in Western capitals. High-level advisers and former officials have recently started to talk about Bashar al-Assad as a lesser evil than whatever comes next; some even see him as a potential partner in fighting jihadi terrorists.
Rebuilding bridges with Mr. Assad, the reasoning goes, would allow Western intelligence agencies to penetrate and disrupt the activities of extremist groups and help identify the many hundreds of Western jihadis who are flocking there.
But it’s too late. We’re already in bed with Assad, and the rise of jihadists in Syria is a crisis of our own making.
I noted at the time what was accomplished by the deal with Assad to supposedly eliminate his stockpile of chemical weapons—a deal that made our policy dependent on his cooperation.
If Obama’s goal was to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, he achieved the opposite. Assad has been rewarded with a guarantee of immunity from American action. He was pretty much getting that already in practice, but it’s nice to have it in writing.
More broadly, Assad emerges from this deal, not just untouched, but indispensible….
If this whole deal is going to work, Assad is the guy we have to work with. He has gone from being the partner and tool of our geopolitical adversaries, Iran and Russia, to now being accepted as our partner and de facto ally—while still maintaining his alliance with our enemies….
So Assad develops chemical weapons, stockpiles them, uses them against his own people, and disperses them around the country—and that makes him the indispensible man we need to protect us from the threat of chemical weapons!
This is a historic capitulation, and we made it all official in the deal the administration negotiated with Iran on its nuclear weapons program.
Here is the upshot of that agreement.
It is important to understand that the Iran deal is not itself an actual agreement. It is an agreement to negotiate an agreement…. [T]eams of diplomats sat around a table tirelessly negotiating and produced an agreement to hold more negotiations….
I’m not sure whether any of this agreement is going to end up binding the Iranians, but I’ll bet that it will bind the Western powers. It will set up exactly the kind of diplomatic regime that has prevailed with North Korea for the past few decades. It is an endless dance in which they break the agreement and we ratchet up the sanctions, and then we pull back the sanctions to induce them to come back for another round of negotiations, which look like they’re going somewhere until they don’t, and the whole cycle starts over again. As North Korea shows, none of this needs to stop when the Iranians actually manage to develop an atomic bomb. It just enters a new stage.
And the Iranians will follow the North Korean model in 3, 2… “Iran Nuke Deal Quietly Collapses.”
This accomplishes precisely what the Syria deal accomplished: it makes us dependent on the cooperation of the Iranian regime to move forward. Now we can go back and put this in context with the popular uprising against the Iranian regime in 2009 and Obama’s silence about that uprising. The Iranian protesters used to ask, “Obama, are you with us or with the regime?” They have their answer, fully and finally. Obama is with the regime.
Our traditional allies are observing this and making their own arrangements. The Saudis are declaring that if we embrace their regional rival, Iran, they will go it alone. I might not object too much to dumping our alliance with Saudi Arabia—if it weren’t for the fact that we are dumping them in favor of a regime that is even worse.
Heck, President Obama can’t even take himself seriously.
Even Obama is no longer able to take his own “red lines” seriously, involuntarily laughing when a reporter asked him about whether developing nuclear weapons was a red line for Iran.
Think about that for a moment. We warned that caving in on Syria would wreck U.S. credibility with Iran, and now the president himself cannot keep a straight face when talking about red lines for Iran’s nuclear program.
And Obama’s moral uncertainty is having its effect at home, which is the story behind the Edward Snowden national security leaks. While I hate the leaker but love the leak, which exposes President Obama’s abuse of National Security Agency wiretapping technology, Snowden merely reflects the attitudes and rhetoric coming down from the top.
Notice…the way in which Snowden reflects the Obama administration’s policies and public pronouncements on national security and the War on Terror. President Obama’s policy has been to continue many of the Bush administration’s policies—from keeping prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, to drone strikes, to vast new surveillance powers—while also loudly agonizing over the immorality of these same programs. You can dismiss these as moral crocodile tears, but the self-flagellation has consequences.
It’s no surprise, then, that a low-level functionary like Snowden takes seriously the moral agonizing that radiates down from above, but unlike the president, he can’t continue to support the programs his commander-in-chief hypocritically denounces as immoral.
In effect, the commander-in-chief suborned Snowden’s treason.
But it gets worse. As predicted, Obama’s deal with the Assad regime has killed off (in some cases literally) the last of the relatively moderate, secular Syrian opposition. Now the latest report is that the administration is contemplating an alliance with Syria’s radical Islamist rebels.
As the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion implodes under the strain of vicious infighting and diminished resources, the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria’s civil war. The development has alarmed US observers concerned that the radical Salafists do not share US values and has dismayed supporters of the Free Syrian Army who believe the moderates were set up to fail.
On Monday, the State Department confirmed its openness to engaging with the Islamic Front following the group’s seizure of a Free Syrian Army headquarters last week containing US-supplied small arms and food.
It’s hard to see how an administration could more comprehensively fail to protect American interests, when we find ourselves seeking friendly relations both with the bloodthirsty, Iranian-backed dictator, and with the equally bloodthirsty, al-Qaeda-allied opposition.
But none of this is an accident, and that’s the significance of the incident at the memorial service in South Africa when President Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand. It’s not just Castro. The general sense is that Obama isn’t really interested in shaking anyone’s hand unless it’s soaked with blood.
Obama grew up among the radical left, the type of people who make pilgrimages to Castro’s Cuba to see their ideal society at work. In the eyes of the radical left, the US has traditionally had all the wrong allies and should have been embracing Russia, Cuba, and every other miscreant anti-American regime on the planet. Now Barack Obama is actively seeking friendships with Syria, Iran, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while downgrading our relations with traditional allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Britain, and France. Obama is acting on the far left’s foreign policy—and the result is that we now actually do have all the wrong allies.
There is one opportunity that emerges from this disaster. The Syria debacle reset all of the foreign policy positions set out during the George W. Bush years. I called it “Etchasketchistan.”
A one-line fake headline gag in The Onion recently caught my attention: “Earthquake Wipes Out Etchasketchistan.”
I feel like we’re living in Etchasketchistan right now when it comes to foreign policy.
The Syrian intervention has finally shaken loose all of the foreign policy alignments that fell into place during the Iraq War, and it’s as if someone grabbed the foreign-policy commentariat, turned it upside-down, and shook it so we can start all over again from a blank slate. You can no longer guess where anyone on the left or the right will stand, or who will come off sounding like a realist, a neocon, an isolationist.
Or as I put it later, during the brief period in which President Obama was threatening airstrikes on Syria:
Ah, those skeptical anti-war Republicans and those hot-headed neocon warmonger Democrats.
Welcome to Etchasketchistan, the new foreign policy world in which everyone has decided to switch sides since the last go-around, just to keep things interesting.
This has produced a period of introspection, particularly on the right, as everyone is prompted to ask where they really stand and what their principles are on foreign policy. This gives us an opportunity to go back to first principles and think about what our principles and grand strategy ought to be, and to make sure that we aren’t just reacting to immediate events or to our dislike of a particular leader.
I promised earlier this year to do that, but I got a little distracted, so this is an issue that remains near the top of my agenda for the new year.
But it’s not at the very top, because we will all spend the next year dealing with the unfolding of the biggest story of this year: the implosion of ObamaCare on contact with reality. That is the story we will examine when I reach #1 in our countdown at the end of this week, before moving on to look at the tasks ahead of us in the new year.
In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas, and for those of you still scrambling for a last-minute gift—see our holiday sale.