Foreign Policy and the Vision Thing

July 24, 2013

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he promised that America would be more respected and liked in the world. Foreign leaders would bow to his wishes. Ancient conflicts would end. In a speech before hundreds of thousands in Berlin, he vowed to do nothing less than "remake the world."

Instead, President Obama's foreign policy has been a failure tactically and strategically, almost from beginning to end, mostly because he lacks strategic vision.

Start with Iraq, where Mr. Obama has largely surrendered America's hard-won gains. The Iraqis and our allies wanted a continued U.S. military presence to protect them. Mr. Obama said he did, too. But he killed that outcome by demanding parliamentary approval in Iraq of any Status of Force Agreement. This was a political impossibility for Iraqi leaders.

The result is a region growing ever more unstable and dangerous. Violence is rising in Iraq and Iran's influence is increasing, while America's influence is nearly nonexistent. Iranian planes fly over Iraq to resupply Bashar Assad and ferry Revolutionary Guards to the civil war in Syria. This would not happen if the U.S. had a military presence in Iraq.

That's not all. Even after endorsing a surge of troops in Afghanistan in 2009, Mr. Obama signaled in 2011 that he was eager to head for the exits by withdrawing U.S. troops in 2014. But quitting Afghanistan next year will not make the tide of war recede, to paraphrase the president. It could allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist haven again, add to regional instability, and cause allies to doubt our word while adversaries doubt our credibility and staying power.

Next door to Afghanistan is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mr. Obama squandered the best chance for regime change and a possible historical turning point in that dangerous and vital land by failing to support democratic reformers when the ayatollahs stole the June 2009 presidential election.

Then there's Egypt, the largest and strategically most important Arab state. Unlike his two predecessors, Mr. Obama didn't pressure Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to reform and modernize. In the end, Mr. Mubarak was overthrown. Mr. Obama then badly mismanaged the relationship with Mr. Mubarak's successor, Mohammed Morsi, as he consolidated power and began imposing an authoritarian Islamic state. Mr. Morsi, in turn, was overthrown in a military coup in July. Egypt is now engulfed in chaos.

Syria's brutal civil war is destabilizing neighboring Jordan, a U. S. ally, and increasing Russia's influence in the region. Assad, the despot Mr. Obama first demanded be gone in August 2011, tightens his grip on power in the face of a feckless U.S. policy.

Mr. Obama's promised "reset" with Russia has never materialized. Polls show America's standing is worse on the Arab "street" than when he took office. America's relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan has deteriorated. Mr. Obama failed to take advantage of his predecessor's negotiation of a nuclear deal with India to strengthen ties there. The U.S.-China relationship remains problematic.

In Africa, the president's lack of enthusiasm for his predecessor's very successful program to combat AIDS and malaria has confounded Mr. Obama's liberal supporters. His agenda for the continent? The president told African leaders in Tanzania on July 1 that his priority is to "modernize customs, move to more efficient border crossings, reduce bottlenecks, reduce the roadblocks that stymie the flow of goods." This was worthy of a speech by a commercial attaché, not a U.S. president.

In all this mess, it's hard to see a strategic vision for Mr. Obama's foreign policy. To the degree that a vision exists, it has seemed aimed at diminishing America's presence in the world. Even then, Mr. Obama's leadership has been marked by weakness, inconsistency, ad hoc decision-making, unnecessary tensions with foreign leaders and incompetence.

Befitting a man whose worldview was shaped in the academy, Mr. Obama is deeply mistrustful of American strength. He seems to take special delight in apologizing for America's pre-Obama past and has the worrisome habit of being hard on allies, such as Israel, and soft toward adversaries like Russia.

And then there is the war on terror. Mr. Obama's National Security Strategy released in May 2010 said that America sought to "delegitimize the use of terrorism and to isolate those who carry it out." Can you imagine if President Ronald Reagan had put forth the goal not of tearing down that wall, but of isolating it?

It's impossible to know how much worse things might get between now and the end of Mr. Obama's presidency. It's fair to say that it will take many years to clear away the foreign policy rubble accumulated during his years in the Oval Office.

A version of this article appeared July 25, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Foreign Policy and the Vision Thing and online at

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