Responding to an opponent, Barack Obama said: “I stood up and opposed this war at a time when it was politically risky to do so because I said that not only did we not know how much it was going to cost, what our exit strategy might be, how it would affect our relationships around the world, and whether our intelligence was sound, but also because we hadn't finished the job in Afghanistan.”
Well said, except that Obama spoke these words not in fall 2013 about Syria, but five years ago, in fall 2008, during the first presidential debate against Republican Senator John McCain. Obama was speaking about the Iraq war, which was extremely unpopular at that time. McCain faced the seemingly impossible task of defending the outgoing administration against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis and an American public weary of foreign ventures.
Obama had several things going for him compared to the other nominees. He was relatively new to Capitol Hill, becoming a senator in 2005, and so could not be held responsible for the sins of the past. He was not part of the Washington establishment or a political dynasty, and this also played to his advantage. He had become a symbol of the renewal sought by many Americans.
Simply put, he was expected to do things differently.
A year earlier, in summer 2007, Obama was just one of a dozen politicians seeking the Democratic nomination for president. It was then that he published an article on foreign policy in Foreign Affairs magazine in which he wrote: “Tough-minded diplomacy, backed by the whole range of instruments of American power – political, economic, and military – could bring success even when dealing with long-standing adversaries such as Iran and Syria… Diplomacy combined with pressure could also reorient Syria away from its radical agenda to a more moderate stance – which could, in turn, help stabilize Iraq, isolate Iran, free Lebanon from Damascus’ grip, and better secure Israel.”
“Ultimately, no foreign policy can succeed unless the American people understand it and feel they have a stake in its success – unless they trust that their government hears their concerns as well,” Obama warned, concluding: “America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, and the world cannot meet them without America.”
Six years have now passed. Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, faces the prospect of taking military action against Syria – the second time he has raised the need to intervene in the Middle East and North Africa region during his presidency.
Neither the objective nor scale of the potential campaign in Syria is clear. The public does not support the use of force and is growing increasingly confused by their president’s actions. The potential consequences and costs are also unclear. Washington’s call for collective action to punish the evil regime has been left hanging in the breeze – US allies are not openly opposing military action as was the case with Iraq, but few are prepared to actively support it.
There is no chance of UN Security Council resolution authorizing force.
The president knows that the operation is not simply risky but is most likely to produce the opposite result by igniting an uncontrollable chain reaction in the region. And yet he appears doomed to take a step (in fact, several steps) toward escalation and even agree with Senator McCain’s position that targeted strikes won’t do the job – once Washington intervenes it will have to produce a result.
How did the US president drift so far from the intentions and promises of his first campaign?
There are both objective and subjective reasons. Objectively, he has to contend with difficult times. The international system has reached a turning point. It is no longer possible to ignore the absence of a stable world order since the Cold War ended. Increased interdependence between countries does not guarantee the integrity of the global system. On the contrary, though inseparably linked, the world is fragmenting, and it’s hard to understand or predict what some fragments might do.
Obama understands better than anyone in the US establishment how much the world has changed and how ineffective the old methods of influencing events have become. The United States has, at its disposal, almost limitless power – but exercising it produces the opposite effect from that intended.
This lack of strategic vision is not due to poor forecasting or analysis; rather it is simply impossible in principle to predict what will happen next.
This marks the end of Obama’s ambitious plans to revamp US foreign policy and adapt it to changing circumstances, although Obama fully understands the need for precisely this.
Obama does not seem like the kind of man who, by nature, likes violence or ideological dogmatism. Both are, in any case, traps. In the context of US global leadership and the country’s political culture, they are perceived as lack of resolve or opportunism, which damages his reputation.
Understanding the reality and the need for change are necessary but not sufficient for charting a new course.
Despite his oratorical gifts, Obama has failed to get his foreign and domestic partners to fall in line with how he sees things. Fundamental changes in direction, clearly needed if he is to succeed in “renewing American leadership” (the title of Obama’s 2007 article), require an ability to forge broad consensus.
Initially Obama was thought to be good at this. But in practice he has become one of the most polarizing leaders in US history and has aggravated the divisions in society and among lawmakers.
The main reason for Obama’s failure is probably that he regards foreign policy as secondary to the domestic reforms that he wants to constitute his legacy.
Obama has to prove that he is willing to fight for his Syrian policy.
Otherwise his opponents will view him as a lame duck and he will be ignored on every other issue, be it healthcare, debt reduction, or measures to fight poverty and improve education.
It seems Obama considers the cost of inaction to be higher than the cost of getting stuck in a Middle East quagmire. Another war in the region is the lesser of two evils in this case, even though it violates his principles and inherent common sense.
“We can neither retreat from the world nor try to bully it into submission. We must lead the world, by deed and by example,” he wrote in the 2007 article.
Paradoxically, the most negative manifestations of US hegemony have appeared not when America could achieve almost anything it wanted but now that its capabilities have become more constrained. Remaining the world’s greatest power but no longer feeling like it, the United States may do more damage to itself and others with its current inconsistency than it did with its stubborn self-conceit.
When an “example” does not lead anywhere, only the second part of the phrase remains true: “We can neither retreat from the world nor try to bully it into submission.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.
*Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.