WASHINGTON – It is fitting that the day before President Obama gave his grand West Point address defending the wisdom and prudence of his foreign policy, his government was urging Americans to evacuate Libya.
Libya, of course, was once the model Obama intervention – the exquisitely calibrated military engagement wrapped in the rhetorical extravagance of a nationally televised address proclaiming his newest foreign policy doctrine (they change to fit the latest ad hoc decision): the responsibility to protect.
You don’t hear R2P bandied about much anymore. Not with more than 50,000 civilians having been slaughtered in Syria’s civil war, unprotected in any way by the United States. Nor for that matter do you hear much about Libya, now so dangerously chaotic and jihadi-infested that the State Department is telling Americans to get out.
And you didn’t hear much of anything in the West Point speech. It was a somber parade of straw men, as the president applauded himself for steering the nation on a nervy middle course between extreme isolationism and madcap interventionism. It was the rhetorical equivalent of that classic national security joke in which the presidential aide, devoted to policy option X, submits the following decision memo:
• Option 1. All-out nuclear war. • Option 2. Unilateral surrender. • Option 3. Policy X.
The isolationism of Obama’s telling is a species not to be found anywhere. Not even Rand Paul would withdraw from everywhere. And even members of Congress’ dovish left have called for sending drones to Nigeria, for God’s sake.
As for Obama’s interventionists, they are grotesquely described as people “who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak” while Obama courageously refuses to believe that “every problem has a military solution.”
Name one person who does.
“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force?” Obama recently and plaintively asked about Ukraine. In reality, nobody is. What actual earthlings are eager for is sending military assistance to Ukraine’s woefully equipped forces.
That’s what the interim prime minister asked for when he visited here in March – and was denied. Two months later, military assistance was the first thing Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s newly elected president, said he wanted from the United States. Note: not boots on the ground.
Same for Syria. It was Obama, not his critics, who went to the brink of a military strike over the use of chemical weapons. From which he then flinched. Critics have been begging Obama to help train and equip the outmanned and outgunned rebels – a policy to which he now intimates he might finally be coming around.
Three years late. Qusair, Homs and major suburbs of Damascus have already been retaken by the government. The battle has by now so decisively tilted toward Assad – backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, while Obama dithered – that Assad is holding triumphal presidential elections next week.
Amid all this, Obama seems unaware of how far his country has fallen. He attributes claims of American decline to either misreading history or partisan politics. Problem is: Most of the complaints are coming from abroad, from U.S. allies with no stake whatsoever in U.S. partisan politics. Their concern is their own security as they watch this president undertake multiple abdications from Warsaw to Kabul.
What is the world to think when Obama makes the case for a residual force in Afghanistan – “after all the sacrifices we’ve made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win” – and then announces a drawdown of American forces to 10,000, followed by total liquidation within two years on a fixed timetable regardless of circumstances?
The policy contradicts the premise. If you want not to forfeit our terribly hard-earned gains – as we forfeited all our gains in Iraq with the 2011 withdrawal – why not let conditions dictate the post-2014 drawdowns? Why go to zero precisely by 2016?
For the same reason, perhaps, that the Afghan surge was ended precisely in 2012, in the middle of the fighting season – but before the November election. A 2016 Afghan end date might help Democrats electorally and, occurring with Obama still in office, provide a shiny new line to his resume.
Is this how a great nation decides matters of war and peace – to help one party and polish the reputation of one man? As with the West Point speech itself, as with the president’s entire foreign policy of retreat, one can only marvel at the smallness of it all.
Charles Krauthammer’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.