The Foreign Policy President

The Foreign Policy President

The next commander-in-chief is going to inherit a world of crises. Are they prepared to provide solutions?

The presidency of Barack Hussein Obama has provided no small amount of angst among liberals, inspired the righteous wrath of conservatives, and provided those who pay attention to world affairs with a wealth of lessons in unsound foreign policy. And make no mistake: they are lessons the United States needs to learn, regardless of which party controls the White House in 2017.

Obama’s tenure as POTUS has transformed the 44th leader of the free world from inspiring harbinger of a new utopia into something out of Aesop’s tales. Were he still alive, one might even imagine Machiavelli penning The Prince II: The Barry Soetoro Years, pointing to case after case of failed policies, puerile assumptions, and boneheaded ideology finally grinding down the administration to its sad finale.

And yet the story does not end there. With international chaos on the way up, and an exhausted regime on the way out, the United States finds itself in a more Bismarckian age than has been seen since 1914. Unlike Barack Obama, the next president will not be able to duck and dodge his or her way out of the looming crises. There will be a reckoning.

It isn’t terribly difficult to see where tensions are likely to arise. Vladimir Putin has impressively managed to browbeat his fractured Russian backwater into a threatening global power, capable of projecting high-intensity power into foreign battlefields. A Slavic Spartacus to many Russians, he has now successfully stared down Uncle Sam’s indomitable legions with no more than a mean poker face. 

In the Middle East, the U.S. has only been successful in establishing itself as both the eternal enemy, and staunch defender, of Shi’ites. Thanks to amateur decisions by our still-in-training commander-in-chief (announcing the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq; releasing $1.7 billion in payments to the Iranians; drawing worthless lines in the sands of Syria) the U.S. has poured gasoline over what is now a towering inferno. 

Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” has proved equally dismal. Should the President choose to continue down the road towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he will almost certainly alienate millions of blue collar Americans, and spark economic retaliation in Beijing. The contrast with Syria is striking: where the feckless Obama drew lines for Bashar al-Assad over chemical weapons use (to the applause of liberal interventionists) without any intention to follow through with force, he now seems intent on ramming home a trade war with the People’s Republic of China, without the least bit of support at home--even among liberals. 

Let us not forget what POTUS 44 campaigned on in 2008: “[On] my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war.”

The world stage in 2017 is largely the result of lax leadership in Western states, chief among them the U.S. In the vacuum created by leaders unwilling (and lacking the domestic support needed) to engage abroad, the ancient forces of human greed, tribalism, nationalism, and the desire for internal security have erupted once again. The West is discovering that the need for national identity is stronger than modern globalism. Countries which identify themselves as civilizations--Russians, Iranians, and Han Chinese--are elbowing their way to international prominence. In short, Americans have awoken to discover that much of the world is unhappy with their flavor of world order, and are willing to push the edges of what is acceptable and risk U.S. retaliation to change it.

The darkest lesson to be learned here, however, isn’t that nationalism is well and alive; it was always present, if hidden. The world isn’t actually entering into unknown territory, either. After all, a multi-polar stage with competing actors and relative technological parity has been the order of the day since biblical times. 

The lesson is that reputation, once lost, may only be regained through serious, dedicated action. Deterrence only works if others believe we mean business. Enemies of the United States once learned to fear and respect American strength because they felt it deployed against them. The Obama administration has, among many things, tarnished that image by failing to follow through on its tough words in Syria, Ukraine, and the Crimea. And while diplomacy remains a critical tool, American deterrence rests fundamentally on its willingness to expend blood and treasure in the pursuit of its national interest--in this case, maintaining the world order it built.

If dark days lie ahead, however, we inheritors of the 21st century may take comfort in knowing that it can still be a very American century. For all its fears, the United States maintains a lethal military, a largely robust economy, geography to foil would-be invaders, and abundant natural resources. With energy independence achieved--the dream of every nation-state the world over--by accident, the U.S. of 2016 finds itself ready to cheaply fuel an advanced, burgeoning nation of 319 million souls, and a navy capable of defending its interests anywhere on Earth. For all our troubles, we remain the envy of the world. 

Now we just need conservative leadership to make it happen.

Follow this author on Twitter @tasciovanus

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