One does not quite see what Roger Cohen was getting at in his column yesterday. After all, as I have posted, Cohen recently offered one of the most brutal critiques of the Obama Syria policy… an unmitigated and world-changing failure. And he has been anything but positive about Obama’s approach to Islamic terrorism.
On those we all agree.
Yesterday, however, Cohen wrote a strange column in which he pretended to be writing a speech wherein Obama would defend his foreign policy. Cohen, or Obama-Cohen called it a policy of restraint. We do better to call it Do-nothingism. It's principle is simple: if you do nothing, they presumably you cannot be held accountable for doing something.
We have in this blog examined many different explanations for Obama’s foreign policy failures. Among them: incompetence, sympathy for America’s enemies, believing that America is the problem, not the solution.
Put them together and you have a good picture of what went wrong with Obama’s foreign policy.
In writing a speech for Obama, Cohen is suggesting that there is method in the madness. I suspect that there never was a real rationale, but that, in looking back, you can find a rationale for just about anything. The truth is, if you cannot articulate a policy before you act then you do not have a policy.
Cohen opens with Obama contemplating the sting of public criticism. People accuse him of refusing to defend America’s interests. People believe that he does not accept America’s leadership role in the world. Since there is no evidence to suggest otherwise, the criticism does have some bite.
Obama-Cohen begins on the defensive:
To say this is to be accused of defeatism, of managing American decline and of giving up on American exceptionalism. That is why I have pursued an implicit foreign policy rather than an explicit one. That is why I waited so long to give this speech on my doctrine of restraint. No president wants to make a speech called “The Consequences of the End of the American Century.” It’s political suicide.
So, Obama did not really have a policy. You need to know something to formulate and implement a policy. Obama did not know much of anything about world history or foreign policy, so he had to make it up as he went along. By default, he allowed himself to be led around by his ideology and his emotions.
Obama-Cohen does not seem to understand that, if the American century is over, he himself has been its undertaker. Just like Obama himself, Obama-Cohen never takes responsibility for anything.
Having weakened America, having shown himself to be weak, Obama-Cohen suggests that American power is no longer as consequential as it once was. Had he suggested that he was responsible for this decline, we would have been more likely to agree:
The consequence is that American power still counts but no longer clinches the deal. Multilateral solutions to international problems must be pursued. The Iran nuclear agreement — reached with help from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — is one example. Another is the Paris Climate Agreement. Military power can only be used as a last resort, for clear and achievable political ends, and when there is a workable plan for post-military development. That was not the case in Iraq. Look at the price.
If the best Obama-Cohen can do is to tout his disastrous deal with Iran and an empty climate change agreement, he has accomplished precisely nothing. The mass migration of peoples from the Middle East and Africa risks changing Western civilization for the worse… for decades, if not centuries to come.
Being an amateur Obama-Cohen tries to rationalize his weakness and failures by setting up an alternative that is worse. It would be like someone who is gun-shy defending his cowardice by saying that being trigger-happy would be worse.
I know that many people think my policies have failed in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, and that President Putin has filled the vacuum. My priority was to avoid overreach in the use of American power, adjust our ambitions to the realities of the world and devote resources to neglected domestic priorities including infrastructure, inequality and health care.
He continues to set up a false choice:
I’ll take that moniker, if the alternative is to embrace feel-good posturing and drift into another intractable war in which young Americans die for murky causes in the indifferent sands of the Middle East.
Here, Obama-Cohen shows what is wrong. He believes that there are only two alternatives: all-out war or nothing. Simple-mindedly he sees the world in all or nothing terms. As long as he is not doing what he is afraid to do—go to war—he thinks that he is doing the right thing. He has failed to understand the diplomacy always seeks a middle ground between two extremes. And he has failed to see that there are many ways to exercise leadership. He was a tennis player trying to play in a chess tournament against grandmasters.
Then Obama-Cohen starts listing some of his failures.
Should I have backed the pro-democracy uprising of young Iranians in 2009 against the regime, and might American support have tipped the balance? Should I have done more to ensure the fragile Egyptian experiment in democracy did not fail by pressing former President Mohamed Morsi to restrain his divisive Muslim Brotherhood agenda? Should I have called the coup that ousted him a “coup”?
These are situations where Obama was frozen like a deer in the headlights. He looked at the situation and did nothing. Nothing is not a policy. It is not a policy of restraint. It is cowardice.
But, of course, his team agonized over the issues. They might be a band of incompetents, but at least they have the right feelings. Don’t you feel better already?
I know members of my foreign policy team have agonized over Syria and its quarter-million dead. One or two may have been close to resigning. The refugee flow into Europe destabilizes allies. But I do not lose sleep. This job is about tough choices. Restraint was the wiser option for a chastened America unready to pass the mantle but condemned now to share it.
As I said, other options were available. Obama was restrained because he did not know what he was doing. His restraint was an orderly retreat. If Obama-Cohen did not understand it, the rest of the world did.