Though divided as seldom before, the US political elite is united in its assessment of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy as a failure. Obama’s precipitous departure from Iraq, his boast-and-retreat game on Syria, his pathological desire to fudge the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, his surrealistic attempt at peacemaking in the Middle East, and his pathetic non-response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s salami tactics in Ukraine are cited by both Right and Left as so many instances of strategic failure.
Some critics assert that the failure in question is due to Obama’s lack of experience when he became president. Others blame Obama’s narcissistic obsession with his own charm, landing him in a fantasy world of make-believe. But what if the perceived failure is due to Obama’s refusal to do what critics, both on the Right and Left, wish the United States to do? What if Obama is successful in achieving what he set out to achieve?
Let’s probe deeper into the question. Under Obama, the US has lost part of its prestige as a superpower committed to a certain vision of the world and prepared to take the lead in defending that vision wherever it is threatened. But what if Obama rejects that vision? What if he does not want the US to exercise world leadership? What if he shares the belief, fashionable in his student days, that the US is an imperialist power bullying weaker nations and imposing its will through military might or economic clout?
If we ponder those questions, Obama’s foreign policy might start to make sense. In that context, Obama’s behavior would be a result neither of inexperience nor of naiveté, but a deliberate strategy to redesign the United Sates and redefine its place in the world. To be fair, Obama has made no secret of his desire to make the US “a different place.” His chief slogan in 2008 was “change.” Since one changes things one does not like, it was obvious that Obama did not like the US at a time when, in the wake of the Cold War, it was standing at the peak of its power and prestige. At the time the US had pinned the heads of Saddam Hussein and Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar to the wall as war trophies while Putin, having signed a cooperation accord with NATO, was begging Washington to help Russia enter the World Trade Organization. The Middle East was also trying to adapt to the US “Freedom Agenda” at that time, while in Tehran, the mullahs were offering their services to the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US pretended to be a “special nation” on a special mission. Obama has consistently mocked the American claim of “specialness,” and his phrase “leading from behind” makes it clear he regards the US only as another nation-state among some 200 other nation-states. Dropping the “specialness” claim also means the US does not have any special mission to do such things as spreading democracy, defending human rights, or ensuring international peace and stability. The way Obama sees it, the US is not even primus inter pares; it is just one of the many. To be sure, the US would continue to verbally espouse democracy, human rights and peace as ideals. However, it would do no more than any democratic and peace-loving nation, for example Norway, would do.
Obama’s desire to recast the US as a “soft power” has been demonstrated on many occasions. He abandoned the Bush administration’s schemes for NATO expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia along with plans to set up an anti-missile shield in Central and Eastern Europe. To please Russia he also dismantled the advanced missile sites in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Plans to tie Arab states closer to NATO were also shelved while the US rescued its military presence around the globe, notably in the Middle East. Withdrawal from Iraq was followed by troop reductions in Afghanistan, with a promise of total retreat by the end of this year. The brutal murder of the US ambassador to Libya provided a major psychological test. It showed that under Obama, in terms of punishing enemies, the US had reverted to the position it had before Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur appeared at the Barbary Coast at the start of the 19th century.
Obama’s determination to re-design the US as a larger Norway has not been limited to foreign policy. He has also pushed through massive cutbacks in military expenditure which, slowed down because of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s reticence, have gathered pace under Gates’s successor, Chuck Hagel, a quintessential ”yes-man.” The Obama cuts would reduce the size of the US army, air force and Marines to their smallest since the Second World War, and the US navy, at present the only credible blue-water naval force on the global stage, would lose much of its size and effectiveness. By 2019, when the cuts take full effect, the US will no longer have the military capabilities needed for fighting two major wars simultaneously, something that had been a key element of its military doctrine since the 1980s.
Obama’s re-design strategy also includes an increase in the role of the state in the national economy, as illustrated by quantitative easing, the takeover of General Motors, and an avalanche of regulatory legislation. That strategy has found its chief domestic expression in the form of a state-led health care insurance scheme he has introduced. Once, and if, fully established over the next few years, “Obamacare” will amount to the socialization of almost 16 per cent of the US gross domestic product.
Assuming that Obama wants to turn the US into a bigger Norway, one must admit that his foreign policy has been a success on those terms. He has succeeded in cutting the US down to size. Under Obama the number of people across the globe who respect and admire the US has not increased, but the number of those who fear it has decreased.
The trouble is that he has been less than frank about his ideological choice, not telling the Americans what he is cooking, thus acting without an express mandate from them.
Rather than mocking Obama’s inexperience or naiveté, his critics should take his ideological choice seriously, expose its implications, examine its results and invite the public to think about their vision of the US in the world.