“Yeah, let’s talk about that.” The president wished to change the subject. At a press conference the other day he was being interrogated about Ukraine when a reporter asked a question about health care. Obama was delighted. As the excellent Peter Baker reported in The New York Times, “Mr. Obama seems intent on not letting Russia dominate his presidency.” This is not the first time the president has attempted to resist such intrusions upon his idea of how the world ought to be. He has been trying to escape the Middle East for years and “pivot” to Asia, as if the United States can ever not be almost everywhere, leading and influencing, supporting or opposing, in one fashion or another. On the eve of the president’s trip to Asia, Susan Rice remarked that “increasingly [we] see our top priorities as tied to Asia, whether it’s accessing new markets or promoting exports or protecting our security interests and promoting our core values.” What is this strange choice, this retiring either / or calculation? Only small powers think this way. Can the United States ever have “top priorities” only in one place, even if it is a place as big as Asia? Are our “security interests” not also broached by the failure of the Syrian state, or our “core values” not also invoked by its slaughter without end?
The tiresome futurism of Obama, his dogmatic views about what this ritualistically ballyhooed century will be like and what it will not be like, are only a part of what lowers his vision. The bigger problem is that the president feels inconvenienced by history. It refuses to follow his program for it. It regularly exasperates him and regularly disappoints him. It flows when he wants it to ebb and it ebbs when he wants it flow. Like Mr. Incredible, the president is flummoxed that the world won’t stay saved, or agree to be saved at all. After all, he came to save it. And so the world has only itself to blame if Obama is sick of it and going home.
Obama has concluded, according to Baker, that he “will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin,” and so he has decided that he “will spend his final two and a half years in office trying to minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin.” Ignoring the master, of course, has the consequence of ignoring the master’s victims: the Obama administration abandons to their fates one people after another, who pay the price for the president’s impatience with large historical struggles. The Ukrainians, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Moldovans, the Poles, the Czechs, the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the Baltic populations: they are all living with the jitters, and some of them on the cusp of despair, because the United States seems no longer reliable in emergencies, which it prefers to meet with meals ready to eat. No wonder that so much of our diplomacy consists in tendering reassurances. The United States now responds to oppressed and threatened peoples by making them more lonely and afraid—a sentimental objection, I know, and one that is unlikely to trouble Henry Kissinger’s epigone in the White House.
Obama’s impatience with history has left him patient with evil. It is not a pretty sight; but his broken foreign policy is riddled with such ironies. Here is another one: Baker reports that the president has elected to revise his Russia policy into “an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.” How twentieth century! Never mind that containment was a policy with many interpretations, and not quite the formula for moving on that Obama is seeking. The grim fact is that Obama’s containment is not containing Putin, whose “green men” and “peoples’ republics” and Big Lies and Russophilic incitement and covert operations and military deployments are undeterred by it. While Obama pitches the “off-ramp,” Putin revels in the on-ramp. Geneva is now the world capital of failure. The only country that American containment is containing is America.
Obama’s surprisability about history, which is why he is always (as almost everyone now recognizes) “playing catch-up,” is owed to certain sanguine and unknowledgeable expectations that he brought with him to the presidency. There was no reason to expect that the Ayatollah Khamenei would take Obama’s “extended hand,” but every reason to expect that he would crack down barbarically on stirrings of democracy in his society. There was no reason to expect that Assad would go because he “must go,” but every reason to expect him to savage his country and thereby create an ethnic-religious war and a headquarters for jihadist anti-Western terrorists. There was no reason to expect Putin to surrender his profound historical bitterness at the reduced post-Soviet realities of Russia and leave its “near abroad” alone. There was no reason to expect that the Taliban in Afghanistan would behave as anything but a murderous theocratic conspiracy aspiring to a return to power. And so on. Who, really, has been the realist here? And what sort of idealism is it that speaks of justice and democracy but denies consequential assistance (which the White House outrageously conflates with ground troops) to individuals and movements who courageously work to achieve those ideals?
But the richest of the ironies about Obama’s foreign policy is this: the world that in his view wanted to be rid of American salience now longs for it. It turns out that Obama’s Iraq-based view of America’s role in the world, according to which American preeminence is bad for the world and bad for America, is not shared by societies and movements in many regions. They need, and deserve, support in their struggles. (In Syria, for example, the tyrant enjoys the significant support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the Islamist rebels enjoy the significant support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the moderate secular rebels enjoy the significant support of nobody.) There are many places in the world where we are despised not for taking action but for not taking action. Our allies do not trust us. Our enemies do not fear us. What if American preeminence is good for the world and good for America? Let’s talk about that.
Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.