“The world is more stable than it was five years ago,” Barack Obama assured the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. This transparently self-serving but otherwise baffling claim came at the beginning of a long and dense address aimed at answering the critique that he lacks a coherent foreign policy, particularly regarding the Middle East.
Judging from the widely varying reactions he inspired, Obama didn’t end the confusion about what he stands for. But his boast that his presidency has calmed the globe opened a window on his peculiar outlook on foreign affairs — and why it has led him to mismanage the most important crises on his watch. So: Why, according to Obama, is the world better off than in 2008? Well, the global economic crisis has abated. But that’s not all: “We’ve also worked to end a decade of war,” the president said, by withdrawing U.S. and NATO troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and “shifting away from a perpetual war footing.” Here’s where you could almost hear the head-scratching in the Iraqi and Afghan delegations: Violence in both of those countries is considerably worse than it was five years ago, in part because of the U.S. withdrawals.
Also, as Obama half-acknowledged, al-Qaida is more of a threat in more places — Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Syria — than it was in 2008. And then there is the region stretching from Morocco to Iran, which is experiencing not stability but an epochal upheaval, one that has brought civil war or anarchy to a half-dozen countries and spawned the greatest crimes against humanity since the turn of the 21st century.
It’s easy to dismiss Obama’s claim on factual grounds. More interesting is to see what prompted it: a soda-straw view of the world in which only the president’s inauguration-day priorities are visible. His aim then was to bring home U.S. troops, end the “endless war” of George W. Bush, defend the homeland from al-Qaida and step back from the quagmire of the Arab Middle East. He did all that; ergo, the world is more stable — and from the attenuated perspective of an American who mainly wishes the world would go away, perhaps it is.
This definition of stability, however, requires ignoring all that would disturb it — anything that might demand new military commitments or deeper U.S. engagement with Arabs and their seemingly endless conflicts. And so Obama spelled out four “core interests” for which he would use “all elements of our power, including military force”: preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, stopping attacks on the U.S. homeland, defending allies and ensuring the “free flow of energy.” All else, including promoting democracy and preventing genocide, was relegated to a lesser category, in which his administration will act only in concert with “the international community.” And maybe not even then.
It’s worth noting that Obama has not always been so small-minded, at least rhetorically. In May 2011, after the NATO intervention in Libya that he reluctantly joined, he delivered another major address on the Middle East. He started by listing the same core priorities. Then he said: “We must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.”
He defined a new set of “core principles” that the U.S. would defend in the Middle East, including “free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.” He said: “Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.”
In fact, as Egyptians and Syrians can testify, he never followed up.
On Tuesday, Obama relinked his rhetoric to his actions and his underlying worldview. He listed just two goals: striking an agreement with Iran that would curtail its pursuit of nuclear weapons and brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Both are worthy but long-shot initiatives; both were on Obama’s agenda in January 2009. And neither, even if achieved, would address the larger Middle East crisis.
Obama warned the General Assembly on Tuesday that “the danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war ... may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation can fill.”
Sadly, it is not just a danger. It was the message of his speech — and the tangible result of his presidency.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.