Trump meltdowns hide Obama’s poisoned chalice

Critics of the Trump administration’s foreign policy have forgotten the mistakes and misjudgments of its predecessor

James Kirchick

Amidst the daily foibles, inanities, Twitter meltdowns and rhetorical outrages of the Donald Trump presidency, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend just how systematically and conclusively his predecessor’s worldview has been discredited. When Barack Obama swore the oath of office just over a decade ago, he entered the White House with a deep conviction that many of the world’s problems were chiefly the consequence of American hubris. What followed was an agenda that prioritised the lowering of tensions with traditional American antagonists over the concerns of traditional American allies.

While speaking at this early stage of anything so coherent as a “Trump Doctrine” would be unwise, the major takeaway from both the administration’s National Security and National Defense Strategies is that the defining characteristic of geopolitics for the foreseeable future is the return of great power competition. That prospect was considered outlandish during the Obama years, with their rosy picture of a world order gradually becoming more harmonious thanks to America “leading from behind.” No better was this innocence expressed than in the response to Russia’s stealth annexation of Crimea by an exasperated Secretary of State John Kerry: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” It would be difficult to find a better encapsulation of the genuine bewilderment mixed with indignation that characterised so much of the Obama administration’s reactions to world events.

For all of its chaos, unprofessionalism and disgraceful mistreatment of allies—perhaps the most important American asset in successfully handling the long-term challenge of great power competition—the Trump administration should at least be credited with recognising that the United States actually has adversaries, that the basis of these antagonistic relationships arises more from the nature of our adversaries’ regimes rather than anything the United States has done, and that these adversaries should be confronted, not conciliated.

Some recollection is in order. Barely six months after Russia invaded and occupied a fifth of Georgia’s territory, the Obama administration responded not with sanctions but goodies in the form of a diplomatic “reset” with Moscow and a nuclear arms reduction treaty. These moves were coupled with the cancellation of missile defence systems in central and eastern Europe, a downgrading in military cooperation that took our allies by surprise, and strong administration opposition to the Magnitsky Act, which has since become an effective tool for holding Moscow accountable for its grievous human rights abuses.

Predictably, this appeasement did nothing to alleviate Russia’s predatory behaviour, as it soon thereafter began violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, (responsible for maintaining strategic stability on the European continent for over three decades), annexed the Crimean peninsula and invaded eastern Ukraine, provided crucial military intervention to back up the murderous Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and intervened in the 2016 US presidential election.

A similar range of “enemy-centric” policies, to use the tart phrase of former Czech foreign and defence minister Sasha Vondra, were implemented in practically every region of the world. The so-called “pivot” to Asia that was cited to justify the decreasing US military presence in Europe (decreasing precisely at a time when Russia was building up its own conventional and nuclear capabilities) consisted of little more than the dispatching of a small contingent of Marines to Australia. Meanwhile, troublesome Chinese behaviour on a variety of fronts—intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, hacking of sensitive US government networks, militarisation of the South China Sea, etc—ensued without punishment, much less the sort of all-out, rhetorical condemnation and trade sanctions we have seen from the Trump administration.

In the middle east, as in Europe, the Obama administration disregarded the entreaties of American allies in sidling up to the region’s primary troublemaker, in this case the revolutionary Iranian regime. Inculcated in an antiquated Arabist interpretation of the Middle East, Obama saw the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as the crux of not just regional but global conflict, the key through which America could set its troubled relationship with the Muslim ummah aright. And so his administration prioritised an elusive peace agreement between the two sides, while simultaneously striving for a grand bargain with Tehran. In exchange for just a temporary suspension of its nuclear weapons development, the Iranians were offered a path toward the diplomatic normalisation after which they had long lusted, the lifting of sanctions, and tens of billions of dollars. Obama’s earlier, premature withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, meanwhile, created the vacuum in which Islamic State could arise, and he barely lifted a finger against the virulently anti-American, pro-Iranian, mass-murdering Assad regime, whose depredations created a refugee crisis that threatens to break apart the European project.

As was the case with Russia after the reset, Iran did not show any signs of behaving like a member of the civilised community of nations following signature of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement. Just as critics warned, instead of devoting the billions of dollars they had won in sanctions relief to improving the lot of their people, the mullahs spent it on regional military adventurism, helping to prop up the genocidal Assad, arming the Houthis in Yemen, and exerting even more control over Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah. In a particularly humiliating blow to the United States, just six months after the JCPOA was signed, commandos of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps captured two small American naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, and paraded the crews on television.

“In my military judgment, America had undertaken a poorly calculated, long-shot gamble,” former CENTCOM Commander and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, hardly known as an Iran hawk, writes of the nuclear deal in his recent memoir. “At the same time, the administration was lecturing our Arab friends that they had to accommodate Iran as if it were a moderate neighbour in the region and not an enemy committed to their destruction. As long as its leaders consider Iran less a nation-state than a revolutionary cause, Iran will remain a terrorist threat potentially more dangerous than Al Qaeda or ISIS.”

Then there is Cuba, with which the restoration of relations was an ideological fixation for Obama, as it has been for many American leftists for half a century. Irrespective of what one thinks of the American embargo, it was at the very least a point of leverage which Washington held over Havana, and a president genuinely interested in human rights and democratic reform on the island would only have lifted it in exchange for at least some concessions from the communist regime. But not Obama, whose personal obsession with being the president “to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” as he triumphantly announced in Havana, overrode all other considerations. In his quest to achieve highly photogenic diplomatic “deals” with rogue regimes that fall apart upon their signing, Obama’s vanity is at least as large as that of his successor.

Obama’s opening to Cuba was a windfall for the communists. It drastically revised the list of “prohibited Cuban regime officials” able to use American financial institutions, permitted Americans to do business with Cuban state monopolies, and lifted a variety of other trade sanctions on the regime. American tourists and dollars poured into Cuba. Other than the release of a captured intelligence asset and an imprisoned American citizen, however, the Obama administration received nothing substantive in return. As with every other rogue regime with which the Obama administration engaged, Cuba took this American fecklessness as a carte blanche to increase domestic repression and foreign adventurism.

Months after Obama announced his Cuba opening, American diplomats posted to the US Interests Section in Havana (and at other diplomatic postings in China) began reporting, according to the New York Times: “Odd mental symptoms: persistent headaches, vertigo, blurred vision, hearing phantom sounds.” A study of diplomats returned from Cuba published in the medical journal JAMA confirmed that they had experienced a form of brain trauma, probably induced by microwave radiation. Meanwhile, some 22,000 Cubans have infiltrated key Venezuelan government institutions, helping to prop up the decaying and decrepit regime of Nicholas Maduro. In an article entitled “Cuba Has Hijacked Venezuela,” opposition leader Julio Borges complained that the island nation is “a parasite, stripping us of our resources”. The timing of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba flushed the regime with cash and emboldened its rush to Maduro’s aid. “At a time of diminishing oil revenue, the opening provided Cuba with additional resources to help with the repressive apparatus in Venezuela,” a State Department source recently told me.

In his memoir, The World as it Is, the former Obama deputy national security adviser and speechwriter Ben Rhodes (whose major achievement in life prior to his senior White House job was the attainment of a master’s degree in creative writing) recounts a private conversation with Alejandro Castro, the only son of Raul Castro, that the two men had in the lead-up to the momentous policy change. After listening to a well-rehearsed Castro tirade about American perfidy against his country, Rhodes exasperatingly replies: “President Obama wasn’t even born when the Bay of Pigs invasion took place.” It was a line, no doubt inserted by Rhodes, that Obama would later repeat in his Havana address, and a point he made in speeches throughout his eight years in office: I am a relatively young president who wasn’t even alive during these disastrous acts of American imperialist aggression, so let’s just move on.

This was the constant, tediously narcissistic background music of the Obama presidency—that his youth and personal sympathy for those who perceive themselves to be the victims of American global hegemony somehow obviated the forces of history and ideology and culture, never mind what other nations perceived to be in their national interest. The Obamians’ determinist view of history could not recognise that the Cuban communists lock up independent journalists because the stale doctrine of Marxist-Leninism demands it; that Iran pledges “Death to Israel” because it sincerely seeks it, that the men in the Kremlin acquire actual glory from the serial humiliations they inflict upon Russia’s smaller neighbours; and that these phenomena derive from cultures and ideologies that will not be attenuated by American apologies and appeasement.

Though Obama remains a wildly popular figure among Democrats (and is generally popular as an ex-president), his legacy, both foreign and domestic, has either been ignored, subtly attacked or altogether rejected by many of those seeking to succeed him. As candidates in the Democratic presidential primary lurch ever-leftwards, Obama’s landmark health care law is derided as insufficient and his border enforcement policies are attacked as just shy of fascism. Meanwhile in the foreign policy realm, while they may criticise the Trump administration’s tactics, few serious Democratic analysts depart from its appraisal of China as a long-term strategic adversary. And hardly anybody now talks about the world in the Obamanians’ dulcet tones.

Democrats promise to take Americans back to a world in which we were more “respected”. But what sort of world will the next president inherit? One with a Russia so emboldened by Obama’s pusillanimity that it brazenly interfered in an election against his own appointed successor, a personal humiliation that, in his massive self-regard, he seems not to have recognised. A Middle East with an Iran that, thanks in large part to Obama’s strategic miscalculations, shows every indication of moving towards construction of a nuclear weapons capability and expanding its nefarious influence across the region. A Cuba so committed to its hidebound ideology, legitimised and emboldened by an American president, that it would expend precious resources propping up a fellow tyranny. A China whose behaviour is so beyond the pale that its challenge is one of few points of bipartisan agreement in a town otherwise riven by partisan conflict. Donald Trump has indeed made a mess of many things; his needlessly alienating allies and total abdication of America’s moral standing chief among them. But neither of these blunders should obscure the poisoned chalice he was ceded by his predecessor, whose disastrous legacy grows more and more palpable by the day. 

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