Obama's Foreign Failure

The world hasn't lived up to his Pollyannaish expectations.

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Barack Obama entered the White House with the promise of restoring our nation's standing in the world. Suffering from war fatigue and concerned with the demands of being the sole superpower in an increasingly dangerous world, many Americans found it tempting to believe that promise. As a candidate, Mr. Obama had been cheered by a couple of hundred thousand in his speech at Berlin's Victory Column. He was idolized by the European intelligentsia and the American left as the antidote to what they saw as the war-mongering and go-it-alone attitude of George W. Bush, who in their eyes lacked Obama's worldliness and sophistication.

In 2009, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Mr. Obama the Peace Prize, citing his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." That was quite an accomplishment for someone who had served a partial Senate term and less than a year as president.

It would be a grand understatement to say that much was expected of this president and his foreign-policy team. All Americans, whether or not they voted for Obama or agreed with his domestic policies, should have wanted this team to succeed in making the world safer. Unfortunately, foreign policy can be the most difficult of the many challenges a president faces. Reality was bound to set in, and it did.

What a difference between 2009 and today, when we find foreign policies that are inept, misguided or both. Former CNN producer Frida Ghitis summed things up nicely when she wrote that "America's foreign policy has gone into a tailspin" and our nation "looks weak and confused on the global stage."

While Russia's recent decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden is rightly seen as a slap at the U.S., it should not have been surprising. It is doubtful Vladimir Putin ever took this administration seriously. In retrospect, the early efforts of Mr. Obama and Vice President Biden to seek more cooperation with Russia simply by a "reset" of our relationship were probably always doomed to fail.

It's not just Mr. Putin, as terrorists and tyrants in the Middle East and elsewhere seldom take us seriously. The "leading from behind" approach used in Libya is emblematic of the administration's approach to foreign policy, with the unfortunate result being a lack of influence in the world and no good options to deal with the unrest and death in Syria and Egypt. There has been little in the way of effort to stop Iran's nuclear program or to punish it for supplying weapons used in attacks on our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was the terrible tragedy in Benghazi and the dismal subsequent behavior of the administration. There has been dithering and worrying about political correctness at the expense of security. The recent temporary closings of 19 of our foreign embassies might well have been the right thing to do, but the broader question has to be how we ever found ourselves where such a humiliating retreat was necessary.

In fairness, Team Obama has done some good things for national security, such as enhancing the use of drones in the war on terror, continuing to monitor phone and electronic communications, finding and eliminating Osama bin Laden and, so far, not following up on its mistaken promise to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. The rightness of these policies is indicated by the anger and disappointment they have caused among the antidefense, blame-America-first left.

But overall the Obama foreign policy team seems to suffer from a Pollyannaish approach to the world. They do not seem to understand that those who hate America will hate us, and will try to harm us, whether our president is Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. They do not seem to understand that the U.S. president simply declaring the war on terror to be over or that al Qaeda is decimated and on the run does not make such things true. They do not understand that, while it's good to extend an offer of peace to those who hate us, those who continue to abuse that effort and harm others need to know with certainty that they will feel the appropriate unpleasant consequences. They fail to understand it's OK to "speak softly" only as long as our enemies know we've got that "big stick" and are not afraid to use it.

The great sorrow is that the damage caused by this administration will take years to repair, and America and the world will be less safe, less peaceful and less secure. The great irony is that a man and his team who are so good at domestic politics, and understanding how the American voters think, can be so bad at foreign policy and understanding how the real world works.