America’s Year of Living Dangerously

By Bret Stephens

Wall Street Journal

January 4, 2016


Two thousand sixteen will be the year of America living dangerously. Barack Obama will devote his last full year in office to shaping a liberal legacy, irrespective of real-world results. America’s enemies will see his last year as an opportunity to take what they can, while they can. America’s allies, or former allies, will do what they must.

And then Hillary Clinton will likely become president. Whether the Republican Party chooses to remain intact remains to be seen.

For aficionados of political delusion, it must have been fun to watch Mr. Obama rattle off his list of foreign-policy accomplishments at his year-end press conference last month. There was the Paris climate deal, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the opening to Cuba—“steady, persistent work,” the president said, that was “paying off for the American people in big, tangible ways.”

Tangible means perceptible by touch. But the Paris climate accord is voluntary and unenforceable; the Pacific trade deal is unratified and unpopular, especially among Democrats; the opening to Cuba is “tangible” only if you enjoy taking your beach holiday in a dictatorship that, as my colleague Mary O’Grady has noted, made some 8,000 political arrests in 2015—that is, after it normalized relations with the U.S.

As for the nuclear agreement, it amounts, predictably, to another American hostage in the hands of Tehran. Iran conducted two ballistic-missile tests in the wake of the deal, both in violation of a legally binding U.N. Security Council resolution. When the administration murmured its intention to impose modest sanctions in response, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that the sanctions would violate the deal and ordered his defense ministry to accelerate its missile program.

“The White House on Wednesday morning sent a notification to Congress that the Treasury Department would announce at 10:30 a.m. new sanctions on nearly a dozen companies and individuals” linked to the Iranian missile program, the Journal’s Jay Solomon reported last week. “The White House sent a second email to congressional offices at 11:12 a.m. stating the sanctions announcement had been ‘delayed for a few hours.’ ”

As of this writing, the sanctions still haven’t been imposed. Forty-two minutes sets a Guinness record in diplomatic self-abasement.

In the week of the sanctions capitulation the Iranian navy test-fired unguided rockets within 1,500 yards of the aircraft carrier USS Truman as it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz. Riyadh executed a radical Shiite cleric and put an end to John Kerry’s fantasies of diplomatic settlement for Syria after it severed diplomatic ties with Tehran. China landed a plane on an artificial island built illegally in the South China Sea in an area claimed by Vietnam.

Each of these acts is an expression of contempt for Mr. Obama. Contempt is the father of lawlessness and the grandfather of violence. What happens when the next Iranian live-fire exercise lands a shell within 1,000 yards of a U.S. ship? Or 500?

Expect 2016 to be rich in such incidents and worse—the inevitable result of Mr. Obama’s deliberate abandonment of Pax Americana as the organizing principle in international relations. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other allies will freelance foreign policies in ways over which we have little say, even as we are embroiled in the consequences. Moscow, Beijing and Tehran will continue to take hammers to the soft plaster of U.S. resolve as they seek regional dominance. The nuclear deal will become a dead letter even as Mr. Obama insists on fulfilling our end of the bargain. China will continue to build islands while buying us off in the paper currency of climate agreements and other liberal hobbyhorses. Russia will seek to test and humiliate NATO.

And there will be mass-casualty terror attacks on the scale of Paris. If you’re reading this column on a major metropolitan commuter network, look up from your paper.

The U.S. has lived through dangerous years before—1968 and 1980 come to mind. Hindsight is often the great redeemer, but both years ended with the American people making sober political choices in the face of a deteriorating international position.

Will that happen again in 2016? Not if either of the two current presidential front-runners wins the office. Not if we think that the central metrics of foreign policy are the size of our carbon footprint or the height of our wall with Mexico. Not if the bipartisan tilt toward economic protectionism and quasi-isolationism becomes the new national dogma. Not if we suppose that turning our back on the world’s great convulsions (or bombing them till they glow) is the best way of escaping them.

In 1947 Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Arthur Vandenberg saved the Western world when they agreed that American prosperity at home depended on the security of our friends abroad. In 2016 we’ll learn if that saving consensus still holds. Buckle up.