Democrats inherit the foreign policy crises of a thousand Republican presidential fathers, but the foreign policy crises inherited by incoming Republicans in the White House are always orphans.
Or at least that’s how the media likes to spin it.
If you believe your random mainstream media outlet of choice, North Korea and Syria were crises freshly spawned by this administration with no prior history. But these ticking time bombs are the direct result of the two terrible terms of his predecessor.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s years in the White House were the most dysfunctional, schizophrenic and senseless eight years of our national foreign policy. His domestic policy was a disaster, but it was a radioactive toxic waste dump with clear and consistent goals. ObamaCare, the abuses of the Justice Department, the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency were the naturally terrible outcome of left-wing policies being implemented with inevitably terrible results.
But Obama’s foreign policy was a wildly inconsistent mess. The Nobel Peace Prize winner couldn’t quite decide if he was a humanitarian interventionist or a pacifist non-interventionist. He couldn’t make up his mind if he wanted to take the side of the Sunnis or the Shiites in their Islamic unholy war. He didn’t know if he wanted to appease Russia or sanction it, to pivot to Asia or run the other way, to play another round of golf or replace his defense secretary for the fifth time.
Obama could be consistent on domestic policy because there were few hard choices to make. Government had to be constantly expanded and every arm of it enlisted in pursuing left-wing goals. Republican opposition was largely hapless. The “Irish Democracy” of the public response to ObamaCare was more effective at sabotaging it, but by the time anyone understood that it was far too late.
The world stage was a much more dynamic place with players who didn’t fit into Obama’s ideology. The Islamist democracy proponents got Obama to kick off the Arab Spring. When Gaddafi shot the Islamists in the streets, the interventionists got him to sign on to regime change in Libya. But then Syria boiled down to Sunni and Shiite Islamists shooting each other and interventionism hit a roadblock.
Obama stopped at his own Red Line and couldn’t figure out what to do next. His foreign policy had somehow boiled down to helping Shiites kill Sunnis in Iraq and helping Sunnis kill Shiites in Syria.
He was bombing and arming the same Islamists at the same time to improve relations with them.
Even a guy who thought they speak Austrian in Austria and celebrated Cinco de Cuatro had to know that something had gone horribly wrong with his foreign policy. When the Russians stepped in and promised to clean up the WMD mess in Syria, he was happy to take them up on the offer without looking at the fine print.
Like a badly programmed computer, Obama locked up in Syria because Islamists fighting Islamists didn’t fit into his left-wing code. He feared alienating either Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile appeasement not only failed to defuse the growing conflict with Russia, but poured more fuel on the flames. And bluffing China with a hollow pivot only sent the message that America was impotent.
Obama’s tenure was marked by two inexplicable wars; a surge in Afghanistan that failed to accomplish any of its goals while killing and crippling thousands of Americans, and an illegal regime change operation in Libya that left the country looking like Iraq. Obama and his fans don’t talk about either of these wars. And you can’t blame them. They make ObamaCare look like a shining success story.
But they’re not the biggest Obama disasters that President Trump inherited.
President Bush left Obama a largely stabilized Iraq. All he had to do was keep the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds working together. It wasn’t a cakewalk, but it was far from the mess that it had been or would be again. A decade ago though Democrats had been as obsessed with Iraq as they would be with Russia. Obama, like the leading non-Hillary candidates, ran on being against the war. So he pulled out instead.
Pulling out alone might have been disastrous because it would encourage the Shiite majority to trample on the Sunni minority. But Obama combined a pullout from Iraq with backing for Sunni Islamists nearly everywhere else, including next door in Syria, who helped swell the ranks of ISIS.
The threat of ISIS and other Sunni Islamists helped Iran get a firm grip on Iraq and Syria. The Arab Spring wedged it deeper into Yemen. And Obama was too worried that Iran would walk away from a potential nuclear deal to do anything about it. The nuclear deal sealed the deal for a resurgent Iran.
And that means that Russia is the dominant power in the region.
Obama alienated Egypt by backing the Brotherhood. President Trump has been trying to undo that disaster. Obama backed Turkey’s totalitarian Islamist tyrant even as he quarreled with and then sidled up to Russia. The only remaining strong ally in the region capable of defending itself is Israel.
Meanwhile possible alliances in Asia fell apart as Obama dithered. The Philippines has an anti-American government that Obama further alienated during his disastrous final months in office. South Korea has fallen back into political instability at a time when it can least afford it while Japan stands alone.
Obama’s Asia pivot was exposed as another gimmick when he proved unwilling to defy the People’s Republic in the South China Sea. His diplomatic efforts seemed to prioritize ideological gestures toward Vietnam’s Communist regime over meaningful strategic alliances. Aside from the risk of war over China’s expansionism, this failed policy was cutting off the non-military China route to resolving North Korea.
This is the route that President Trump is now struggling to reopen again by restoring leverage.
Perversely, Obama did more damage with his failed Asia pivot than he would have done by staying out of it. The non-military option, like so much of diplomacy, depends on the perception of what we might do. In Asia, as in Syria, Obama made it painfully clear that he would do nothing. And the average totalitarian regime has difficulty grasping that different American governments really are different.
The Iran deal once again sent the message to North Korea that nuclear weapons can only benefit it. And that, when combined with Obama’s failures in Asia, funnels us into the military option in North Korea.
Back in Syria, Obama’s Red Line stranded us in the middle of an Islamic civil war and credibility crisis. Obama had handed over the keys to the region to Iran and Russia. America is now stuck trying to get them back.
President Trump chose to do it by going back to the point of collapse and enforcing Obama’s Red Line. It was a controversial choice, but it made a clear statement that presidential promises mean something. It also sent a message to Syria, Russia and Iran that just because we don’t want yet another war, doesn’t mean that they have a free hand to do anything they want.
Obama saw foreign policy in the social justice terms of the left. Trump and his people see a geopolitical struggle. His predecessor believed that we had to atone for our historical crimes. Trump understands that at the root of local crises like Syria and North Korea is a larger contest with Russia and China. It’s the worldview that Obama had sneeringly dismissed as rooted in the Cold War in his debate with Romney.
And yet it’s far more useful than Obama’s incoherent foreign policy whose three pillars were Islamism, appeasement and global warming.
President Trump believes that global stability comes from the stability in the relationship between world powers. Syria and North Korea are just the ways that Russia and China test us to see how far they can push. His goal is to achieve stability from the top down by reaching an understanding with the other powers. And to do that he has to undo the credibility crisis that he inherited from Barack Obama.
Obama left behind plenty of domestic and international ticking time bombs, from ObamaCare to Iran, and Trump’s first years in office will be occupied with finding ways to keep the bombs from going off.