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Obama's Foreign Policy Fails His Own Test

June 11, 2014

'Don't do stupid sh—." That is the description of President Obama's foreign policy, as crafted by White House message mavens and articulated by the president himself during a recent off-the-record press briefing aboard Air Force One in route to Asia. Mr. Obama reportedly exhorted reporters to chant it back to him.

A crude, meaningless phrase cannot substitute for statecraft, and the administration's actions—or often enough, its inaction—fail to meet his own test.

It was unwise (we'll avoid using "stupid") for Mr. Obama to say in August 2011 that Syrian President Bashar Assad should go—without having a plan to force him out. A year later in August, Mr. Obama declared that Mr. Assad would cross a "red line" if he used chemical weapons. When Mr. Assad did just that, Mr. Obama didn't take immediate action. Today Mr. Assad is more entrenched than he was.

It was also unwise when Mr. Obama refused to arm the moderate Syrian opposition in 2011. Now that the opposition is weak and radicalized, he has suggested that he is considering arming them.

Then there was the Iranian "Green Revolution" of 2009-10, when Mr. Obama gave comfort to the mullahs, not those seeking freedom. It was not smart to later weaken sanctions on Iran in return for vague promises to rein in its nuclear program.

Setting a deadline for ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan that was dictated by the American election calendar and not conditions on the ground was not smart. Nor was it smart for Mr. Obama to sabotage his own plan for a U.S. stay-behind force in Iraq by insisting that the Iraqi Parliament approve the agreement. The result has been the decline of U.S. influence and an increase for Iran's. Now al Qaeda is on the rise: Would it be taking over Mosul and Tikrit if there was such a U.S. force?

It was unwise to insult Israel's prime minister and to believe that pressuring Israel would increase the chances of a peace accord with the Palestinians, who were the real obstacles to an agreement.

During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Mr. Obama managed to alienate all sides—from Hosni Mubarak to those who overthrew him. He supported a military campaign to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi and then walked away, allowing Libya to slide into chaos.

The president did not hold anyone in the State Department leadership responsible for failing to provide adequate security for the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi in 2012. And it was not smart to blame the terrorist attack on an obscure Internet video that hardly anyone saw.

Mr. Obama sought a "reset" of America's relationship with Russia without a strategic framework, naïvely believing that giving Vladimir Putin what he wanted would make him friendlier. Not the brightest move. It was not smart to unilaterally cancel planned missile-defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland in 2009, thereby alienating allies. The U.S. got nothing from Mr. Putin in return, while he became convinced that Mr. Obama could be rolled.

When Mr. Putin rolled into Crimea, Mr. Obama was not smart to refuse Ukraine's request for weapons—and an insult to instead offer the beleaguered country Meals-Ready-to-Eat.

Declaring a "pivot to Asia" without providing the expressions of American power needed to make the pivot real was unwise. So too was insulting Canada by delaying approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and neglecting our own hemisphere, allowing adversaries like Castro and Chávez to fill the vacuum.

It was debatable whether to trade five top Taliban military commanders for a captured U.S. soldier even though the president's own commission had said the Taliban members should never be released. But it was not smart to herald the exchange in a Rose Garden ceremony when the White House knew that there were serious questions about whether the soldier deserted.

It is ironic that the president and his people don't seem to understand that the phrase he chose to describe his foreign policy is an indictment of his foreign policy. As the great philosopher Forrest Gump once said, "Stupid is as stupid does."

A version of this article appeared June 12, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Obama's Foreign Policy Fails His Own Test and online at WSJ.com.

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