The American Pivot, Inward - Reflections On The Missing Obama Doctrine

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.

U.S. President Barack Obama in Miami on May 28
U.S. President Barack Obama in Miami on May 28
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" sometimes deservedly, unfortunately. But in relation to the rest of the world, isn't the U.S. suffering â€" admittedly, with more means â€" 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 â€" which, by the way, is more than reasonable â€" 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.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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