Yes: Obama broke apart the mental molds of the superpower and ended America's hubris
By Jörg Lau
The American president is on a farewell tour. The first political obituaries are already appearing. Barack Obama’s foreign-policy successes are being weighed against the flops.
Yes, he restrained Iran's nuclear program without going to war. Through the rapprochement with Cuba, he deprived that authoritarian, leftist regime of the image of an enemy that it needs for survival. He eliminated Osama bin Laden. Then there is a free trade agreement with Asia and the Paris deal on climate protection. On the other hand, the "reset" with Russia failed, he missed the chance for reconstruction after Muammar Gaddafi was toppled, and he underestimated Islamic State (IS) for a long time. Then there's Syria and the blurred red line. And so forth.
The essence of Mr. Obama's foreign policy can't be grasped in this way. Adding up pluses and minuses is too conventional. It obscures a view to what was new and provocative in this presidency.
Mr. Obama did the world good, even if he doubtlessly made some grievous mistakes. What is most promising for the future is perhaps what the strategic establishment considers to be his greatest sin: Mr. Obama changed the view of American power. Nothing is self-evident anymore: How much influence America has, what leadership means today, why power declines and where it still matters – all this became subject to question through Mr. Obama's policies. And precisely that was desperately needed.
The president's foreign policy left a broad trail of anger and disappointment – not only in the Washington think-tanks that he doesn't particularly trust, but even more with America's closest allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. This president freed American power from its illusions. He discarded an outdated superpower sanctimoniousness and, after all the futile wars in the Middle East, revealed the emptiness of the "strategic" blather of both Pentagon officials and armchair strategists about America's destined "leadership" and its "indispensable role."
Mr. Obama's decision on Syria represented a break with this world, with the Washington "playbook," as he himself puts it. Because no one could present him with a convincing plan how bombing Syria could lead to stability, he decided against his own red line: not another Iraq, not another Afghanistan, not another Libya. Everyone around him, including his probable successor, Hillary Clinton, urged him to bomb nonetheless, so that America would remain "credible." He argued in response that "dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force."
To have broken these sorts of mental molds is no small achievement.
But Mr. Obama's confrontation with the interventionist establishment included the temptation to an excessive correction. As much sense as there might have been in canceling an entry into war in 2013, it cannot be said that every intervention in Syria – especially at the beginning of the crisis – would have been doomed to failure. Mr. Obama has now stated on record that he is "proud" of having exercised self-restraint. That is an inappropriate word choice. In view of the suffering in Syria, no one has reason to be proud.
But now you can observe how Mr. Obama's critics are building up a new myth: His supposed retreat on all fronts, his hesitation, his basic skepticism toward the military are said to have damaged the West and strengthened his enemies. The president's weak will – and not the foreign policy of his predecessors – is blamed for the loss of order in the world. This accusation is a deliberate denial of the fact that a short-sighted and imprecise foreign policy in the Middle East was also a cause of the chaos which today is benefiting authoritarians, tribalists and Islamists.
That tactic won't work. Something more fundamental is at stake here, and Mr. Obama is the first U.S. president to have possessed the inner freedom to recognize that in today's world, power and influence might arise and must be used differently than during the long "American century" that begin with the First World War. America can no longer be the global policeman that it was until the end of the Cold War. The "unipolar moment" after 1990 was an illusion.
Instead this is the situation in Mr. Obama's eighth year in office: crisis-ridden (re-)emergence of China and other formerly colonized countries; breakdown of entire countries and state systems as in Arabia; worldwide resurgence of authoritarianism; return of tribalism and religious wars; self-immolation of the West through a capitalism that exacerbates social imbalances; influxes of refugees as the next level of globalization.
No one actually knows how an order based on freedom can flourish in this environment. Certainly not through macho posing, "balance-of-power policies" and the customary, clueless sequence of cuddling up to villains, then fighting them with bombs. Mr. Obama's foreign policy challenges Americans and the rest of the world to face up to this truth. The dissident on Pennsylvania Avenue sent subversive messages out into the world.
To the Israelis: We will protect you against each and every external enemy, but the creeping self-destruction through the consolidation of an occupying regime is your own doing. Get back in touch when you're ready to talk about the two-state solution.
To the Saudis: You must recognize that the real threat to your security comes not from Iran, but from the radicalism of your preachers, the dependency of your economy on oil and the hopeless perspective of your young people. You need to share the region with Iran.
To the Chinese: We welcome your rise to power, but we intend to strengthen your weak neighbors through trade treaties and to guarantee the right of passage in the South China Sea in the future as well.
To the Russians: So you want to imagine yourselves as a power to be reckoned with in the Middle East, alongside a hated dictator as an anchor of stability? Good luck! We continue to invite you to proceed jointly against IS.
To the European friends: Please continue to talk with Vladimir Putin about Ukraine – he's your neighbor. If you need more ships in the Baltic Sea or troops in the Baltic countries, just give a call.
To the Iranians: Believe me, all the talk of regime change is off the table as far as we're concerned (as long as you keep your fingers away from a nuclear bomb). But if you think that with your intelligent and ambitious young people that you can permanently avoid opening up your society, then the "Great Satan" is the least of your problems.
In truth, there is no Obama doctrine. This remarkable leftist with a conservative temperament has endeavored for eight years to conduct an adult foreign policy.
We might very well come to miss him quite soon.