The world spins out of control at a dizzying pace, with chaos spreading across the Middle East and U.S.-led global order deteriorating elsewhere, all of which leaves Washington looking confused and tentative.
In the Middle East, the Islamic State group expands its footprint in Iraq and Syria, Iran extends its reach into Yemen, Hezbollah flexes its muscles on the Golan Heights and Hamas rearms in Gaza. Elsewhere, Russian-backed rebels gobble up Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin invents more reasons to eschew peace.
Rather than confusion, however, U.S. behavior of late may have another explanation. Perhaps President Barack Obama and his team are less incompetent than purposeful. Perhaps they’re boldly and doggedly discarding long-held canons of U.S. policy, shedding friends and betting on adversaries.
“We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” Obama declared on October 30, 2008.
Though the economy was collapsing and the nation was focused on domestic troubles in late 2008 and early 2009, Obama also suggested at the time that U.S. foreign policy needed a dramatic overhaul. He would, he said, re-set relations with Moscow and reach out to even the most hostile autocrats in Tehran, Damascus and elsewhere. His “fundamentally transforming” ways would extend far beyond America’s borders.
Indeed, consider U.S. behavior of recent days on some of the leading crises that haunt one key region.
“[L]est we get on our high horse,” Obama said in condemning Islamic terror at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, “and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. … So this is not unique to one group or one religion.”
Obama’s caveat about U.S. history – however strange for him to note while America’s men and women are fighting barbaric Islamists who are targeting the United States and its allies – follows his scoff at American exceptionalism, his acknowledgement of the CIA’s role in Iran in 1953 and his other national apologies.
More troubling than Obama’s rhetorical equivocations, however, are his efforts to overhaul our approach to the Middle East, turning inter-personal slights that originated with Washington into the worst-ever crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations, and inviting Iran’s hegemonic advances while ignoring its brutal ways at home and abroad.
Administration assurances that U.S. support for Israel remains “above partisan politics” – as White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough put it after the kerfuffle over Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress erupted – increasingly ring hollow.
These days, Israeli policy insiders say the administration openly dismisses Israel’s concerns about Palestinian incitement to terror, growing terrorist threats on its borders and, most strikingly, Iran’s nuclear pursuit. With Israeli officials estimating that U.S. negotiators already have given Iran 80 percent of what it wants in a nuclear deal – which reportedly would leave it just months from a bomb and lift all sanctions after some period – Netanyahu feels forced to confront the White House publicly in order to stir Congress to block such a deal.
Meanwhile, in its desperate (and, in that way, undignified) pursuit of a nuclear deal with Tehran, Washington ignores Iran’s destabilizing efforts across the region, its reach into Yemen through “death to America”-chanting Houthi rebels that toppled the government there, its saber-rattling on Israel’s border via Hezbollah and Hamas, its growing human rights abuses and, of course, its nuclear progress.
Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised when Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, tells a Brookings Institution audience to reject “alarmism” over mounting global crises and develop “a sense of perspective.”
“Yes, there is a lot going on,” Rice conceded last week. “Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or the Cold War. We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism in a nearly instantaneous news cycle.”
If the bar for “alarmism” is an existential threat, and if the administration is purposely re-shuffling the decks of U.S. global relations while crises erupt, then Rice’s blasé attitude makes sense.
Regarding Obama’s talk of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” we might recall the words of former top Israeli official Abba Eban that “political leaders do not always mean the opposite of what they say.”
No, they do not.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.