The Unteachable President
By Bret Stephens
Wall Street Journal
September 28, 2015
Barack Obama told the U.N.’s
General Assembly on Monday he’s concerned that “dangerous currents risk
pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world.” It’s nice of the
president to notice, just don’t expect him to do much about it.
Recall that it wasn’t long ago
that Mr. Obama took a sunnier view of world affairs. The tide of war was
receding. Al Qaeda was on a path to defeat. ISIS was “a jayvee team” in
“Lakers uniforms.” Iraq was an Obama administration success story. Bashar
Assad’s days were numbered. The Arab Spring was a rejoinder to, rather than an
opportunity for, Islamist violence. The intervention in Libya was vindication
for the “lead from behind” approach to intervention. The reset with Russia
was a success, a position he maintained as late as September 2013. In Latin
America, the “trend lines are good.”
“Overall,” as he told Tom
Friedman in August 2014—shortly after ISIS had seized control of Mosul and as
Vladimir Putin was muscling his way into eastern Ukraine—“I think there’s
still cause for optimism.”
It’s a remarkable record of
prediction. One hundred percent wrong. The professor president who loves to talk
about teachable moments is himself unteachable. Why is that?
Some of the explanations are
ordinary and almost forgivable. All politicians like to boast. The predictions
seemed reasonably well-founded at the time they were made. Mr. Obama wasn’t
really making predictions: He was choosing optimism, placing a bet on hope. His
successes were of his own making; the failures owed to forces beyond his
control. And so on.
But there’s a deeper logic to
the president’s thinking, starting with ideological necessity. The president
had to declare our foreign policy dilemmas solved so he could focus on his
favorite task of “nation-building at home.” A strategy of retreat and
accommodation, a bias against intervention, a preference for minimal
responses—all this was about getting America off the hook, doing away with the
distraction of other people’s tragedies.
When you’ve defined your
political task as “fundamentally transforming the United States of
America”—as Mr. Obama did on the eve of his election in 2008—then your
hands are full. Let other people sort out their own problems.
But that isn’t all. The
president also has an overarching moral theory about American power, expressed
in his 2009 contention in Prague that “moral leadership is more powerful than
At the time, Mr. Obama was
speaking about the end of the Cold War—which, he claimed, came about as a
result of “peaceful protest”—and of his desire to see a world without
nuclear weapons. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the possession of such
weapons by the U.S. also had a hand in winning the Cold War. Nor did he seem to
contemplate the idea that moral leadership can never safely be a substitute for
weapons unless those leaders are willing to throw themselves at the mercy of
their enemies’ capacity for shame.
In late-era South Africa and the
Soviet Union, where men like F.W. de Klerk and Mikhail Gorbachev had a sense of
shame, the Obama theory had a chance to work. In Iran in 2009, or in Syria
today, it doesn’t.
Then again, that distinction
doesn’t much matter to this president, since he seems to think that seizing
the moral high ground is victory enough. Under Mr. Obama, the U.S. is on “the
right side of history” when it comes to the territorial sovereignty of
Ukraine, or the killing fields in Syria, or the importance of keeping Afghan
girls in school.
Having declared our good
intentions, why muck it up with the raw and compromising exercise of power? In
Mr. Obama’s view, it isn’t the man in the arena who counts. It’s the
speaker on the stage.
Finally, Mr. Obama believes
history is going his way. “What? Me worry?” says the immortal Alfred E.
Neuman, and that seems to be the president’s attitude toward Mr. Putin’s
interventions in Syria (“doomed to fail”) and Ukraine (“not so smart”),
to say nothing of his sang-froid when it comes to the rest of his foreign-policy
In this cheapened Hegelian world
view, the U.S. can relax because History is on our side, and the arc of history
bends toward justice. Why waste your energies to fulfill a destiny that is
already inevitable? And why get in the way of your adversary’s certain doom?
It’s easy to accept this view of
life if you owe your accelerated good fortune to a superficial charm and
understanding of the way the world works. It’s also easier to lecture than to
learn, to preach than to act. History will remember Barack Obama as the
president who conducted foreign policy less as a principled exercise in the
application of American power than as an extended attempt to justify the evasion
From Aleppo to Donetsk to Kunduz,
people are living with the consequences of that evasion.