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 any weapon.”

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 debacles.

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 of it.

From Aleppo to Donetsk to Kunduz, people are living with the consequences of that evasion.