It is politically reasonable for President Obama to want to focus on problems at home. But his fainthearted foreign policy approach has contributed to global volatility.
PARIS — We're hearing increasing criticism of the American president, and it goes something like this: There is no Obama doctrine. And it's not the Asian or Chinese pivot that matters now in U.S. foreign policy. It's the American pivot. In the aftermath of the humiliating collapse of Ramadi, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria, to ISIS terrorists, and just as the campaign for the 2016 presidential election is starting, criticism of U.S. foreign policy both inside the U.S. and abroad is growing stronger.
Domestically, it's not just Republicans who are wondering whether President Barack Obama has a coherent vision, particularly in the Middle East. It's Democrats too. Is his solution to back off and let the belligerents kill each other until the weariness of bloodletting finally prevails? This neo-isolationist temptation is now being more openly expressed. The problem is that it's not a feasible option.
"If you break it, you own it," General Colin Powell, George W. Bush's Secretary of State, said not so long ago, comparing the Middle East to a china shop. America broke Iraq. It's not its army that collapsed, but the nation itself. Why send kids to die for a country that doesn't exist anymore?
Having stirred unrest in the region, the United States no longer has the appetite to continue. Like a gambler who has lost a fortune, the U.S. intended to make good on its losses in a single hand — by signing a nuclear agreement with Iran. But Tehran know what's at stake for the U.S. and intends to exploit its technical advantage to its maximum potential. "You need this agreement more than we do," the Iranians seem to be thinking.
If America no longer seems in control of a Middle East that is slipping further and further away from any kind of order, it is for reasons that are beyond the region itself. In reality, the Obama administration's foreign policy in general is being called into question.
The United States continues to criticize a decadent, selfish and inconsequential Europe — sometimes deservedly, unfortunately. But in relation to the rest of the world, isn't the U.S. suffering — admittedly, with more means — from the same illness as Europe? Is there not a discrepancy between its ambitions and priorities, if not its own transformation and the evolution of the world?
The European tragedy is that it believed it could be on the front lines of a post-modern international system, like a model civil power, reinventing the concept of sovereignty for the 21st century. That happened at the exact moment when the world was changing profoundly around it, mostly for the worse. The European Union didn't expect the emergence at its gates of a pre-modern world in its emotions and its way of functioning.
In the same way, there now seems to be a deep incompatibility between the ambitions of Obama's America in the wake of two George W. Bush mandates and the international context. Historians are likely to remember the double responsibility of President Bush. He not only led his country into catastrophic military adventures, but he also left such a legacy that his successor could only do the opposite of what he did. In a very short period of time, the United States evolved from engaging too much with the world to too little.
By so clearly making domestic policy considerations the priority — which, by the way, is more than reasonable — Obama failed to respond to the challenges of a world ever more volatile. It's a chaos to which America largely contributed, through its hyper-activism. It was then followed by its refusal to act, such as in Syria, and by hesitation, like in Libya. There has been no "reset" with Vladimir Putin's Russia. The Russian president felt free to take Crimea after watching the United States fail to intervene in Syria despite the fact that Bashar al-Assad's regime had very clearly crossed a red line, in Washington's own terms.
China must feel that it is the only country that can and should set limits to its regional, if not international, ambitions. By displaying more aggressive ambitions and military doctrine in the face of a more uncertain America, China conveys the real nature of its ambitions. Why should it be more cautious in the face of such a timid America?
Obama's record of international action is of course probably more nuanced than his detractors imply. He took a successful risk in eliminating al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. But the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq appears to have been premature and terribly counterproductive regarding the current situation.
Obama's ambition to make history as a president who transformed America deeply and for the better from the inside was perfectly reasonable. But it was probably not compatible with the evolution of the world during his two mandates. That's the tragedy.