Obama’s warm reception in Britain can’t hide the fact he’s the weakest US president in living memory
Obama gets meetings with the Queen, high fives with Cameron and a speech to parliament. But his lack of global leadership overshadows all.
Consider the world-view of the first American president. In his inaugural address, President George Washington spoke passionately about the “…sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government [that] are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
It was the quintessential statement of “American exceptionalism” – the notion that the United States has a unique destiny to fly the flag for liberal-democratic government and, in many incarnations of this doctrine, to plant that flag as far and as wide across the world as possible.
Now consider the views of the current American president. This is Barack Obama speaking in Cairo in June 2009:
"Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another,” he said, “will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared."
This is the philosophy of the quintessential relativist; the world view of a man who sees nothing exceptional whatsoever about America and its role in the world; the approach of a man who bowed low to the Saudi King and snubbed the Dalai Lama for fear of offending China.
As the Heritage Foundation noted in a comprehensive analysis of the Obama doctrine and its development from the beginning of his presidency:
“Obama undertook a campaign around the world to apologize for what he believed had been America's arrogance. His ‘apology tour’ began with a video speech to the ‘Muslim world,’ saying that we ‘are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect,’ and there's no reason we can't go back to ‘the respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.’
“Then in Europe, at his first NATO summit in early 2009, he lamented America's "arrogance," its "failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world," and those "times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.’"
To be sure, this was a president eager to mark out the differences with his predecessor, George W. Bush. But the passage of time has shown that it was much more than opportunism.
As former Under-Secretary of State John Bolton put it on a visit to London last year “Obama is both naïve and ideological.” He has little understanding of the realities of international politics – as we have seen in the last few days with his blundering and backtracking over his position on Israel-Palestine – but he is simultaneously possessed of clear beliefs (albeit negatives) about what America and the West should stand for.
So where has the Obama doctrine got us?
Let’s do a whirlwind tour, starting with Europe. In the east, we’ve lost Ukraine which is now (more or less) back in Russia’s embrace and further than ever from the transatlantic community, while Georgia toils under partial occupation.
Russia itself has not looked this authoritarian, or this emboldened, since the end of the Cold War. The administration’s famous pledge to “press the re-set button” with Moscow meant nothing without reciprocity. Moscow looked at Barack Obama, saw weakness, and acted accordingly.
The unfolding mess in western Europe is, of course, home grown. Not even the eurocrats can blame the crisis in the eurozone on America.
Foreign policy is a different matter. The strategic stalemate over Libya is a direct result of Europe following Obama’s lead in insisting on multilateralist rules of engagement (though admittedly it could be characterised as a case of the blind leading the blind).
The fetishisation of international law meant we had to get Russia and China’s approval at the United Nations before acting. That meant “no” to regime change. And that’s why Gaddafi is holed up where he is and why we could be stuck in this quagmire without a result for years.
Across the Middle East, we’re in limbo. The entire Western world was taken by surprise by the uprisings. But what seems clear is that if there wasn’t a plan A, there certainly isn’t a plan B if things go wrong.
The glaring contradiction between our (half-hearted) actions in Libya and our inaction in Syria, whose government is slaughtering civilians just as surely as Gaddafi was poised to do, indicates a complete lack of leadership from Washington.
A self-neutering view of relations with the Muslim world has resulted in a self-neutering foreign policy. Iran continues to race ahead with its nuclear programme. Turkey has responded to the withdrawal of American leadership in the region by reasserting itself in an easterly (perhaps pro-Iranian) direction.
Policy on Israel-Palestine would, if it wasn’t so serious, be a joke. It’s a catalogue of summersaults and contradictions with no clear sense of where we are heading.
Policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan remains trapped between the push and pull of Obama’s obvious desire to get out, and the political imperatives in the wider US policy establishment forcing him to stay in, “to finish the job”.
Obama gets plaudits for taking out bin Laden, but even that operation looked all too suspiciously like an exceptional item to prove his credentials rather than representing a long overdue maturing in his view of the world.
As far as China is concerned, Obama seems resigned to the defeatist (and dubious) analysis that it is certain to overtake America sometime in the next couple of decades. America must wind down to take account of the emerging realities. Is further proof of the folly of American exceptionalism really needed, one could imagine him asking?
It’s a rudderless world. And it is one that many could drown in if Obama gets a second term.
Leadership is crucial in global affairs, and so is self-belief. Barack Obama exhibits neither, and for that there may be a high price to pay.
Robin Shepherd is owner/publisher of The Commentator. Follow on twitter @RobinShepherd1
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