The White House wants you to know there’s much more to Obama’s foreign policy than meets the eye. Sure, it might seem that the president has lost the thread, and that America’s interests are suffering in the Persian Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean, Europe, and Africa, just to name a few. But there’s a secret world—details of which are regularly leaked to the media—where the reality is supposedly different. Here the Obama administration is—according to the Obama administration—conducting a robust foreign policy, racking up victory after victory and confounding our foes on a regular basis. You just don’t know about it because Obama wants it that way, nice and quiet. Subtlety, after all, is the signature of smart power.
You might think, for example, that Obama has rolled over on Iran, and that he will allow the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards Corps to get the bomb. But in the secret world, the president has engineered a clandestine cyber campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities that will continue to frustrate the regime’s plans. In the secret world, the administration has intelligence operatives on the ground in Syria coordinating with rebel forces and regional allies to bring down Bashar al-Assad. Russian president Vladimir Putin may seem to display open contempt for Obama—but in the secret world, the Russian reset will soon pay rich dividends.
This secret world, not to put too fine a point on it, is a fantasy. In the real world, there are clandestine actions, to be sure, but the bulk of foreign policy—trade, diplomacy, and war—is conducted openly. Unlike an iceberg, foreign policy is almost all visible. This is especially true of the United States, an enormous power projecting global influence whose smallest movements and offhand remarks are monitored closely by all. Around the world, lives may depend on a decision made in the White House. When the United States is inert, as it is with the current administration, when it is not doing anything to secure its interests, its inaction is obvious to friends and enemies alike.
The administration’s campaign of leaks, in short, is political theater. So what is the driving principle of Obama’s foreign policy?
In the White House’s hesitancy in acting to topple American adversary, and Iranian ally, Bashar al-Assad, Weekly Standard contributing editor Reuel Marc Gerecht sees evidence of an “administration trying not to commit itself.” Indeed, lack of commitment would appear to describe Obama’s foreign policy in its entirety. Ambivalence has been elevated to a guiding principle.
Perhaps the most instructive example is Turkey, whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is said to be one of Obama’s closest confidants among world leaders. He earned his place on Obama’s speed dial because the administration believed that Islamists were poised to inherit the political order of the Middle East, and that Turkey’s Islamist premier would be well placed to help coordinate the White House’s outreach—in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, among other places. It is because the administration saw Ankara as a useful strategic partner that it tried to pressure Israel to apologize to Turkey for killing nine terrorists aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, dispatched in May 2010 to break the maritime blockade of Gaza.
The Turks never received their apology, but Erdogan won a role as the administration’s proxy on Syria policy—until Assad illuminated the limits of Ankara’s power and Erdogan turned against the Syrian president. Turkish diplomats have sought U.S. support to bring down Assad, while Turkish military planners are said to be explaining to their U.S. peers exactly how they’d do it—if the Americans were only on board. But Turkish efforts to convince the White House to join in a project that would advance U.S. interests have been in vain. Obama won’t do it. So the Turks, as well as other regional partners, are spinning their wheels without the backing of their superpower ally.
Much has been made of the Obama team’s tough-minded political cutthroats, but they’re all deployed against Mitt Romney. When it comes to foreign policy, the White House rolls over. It’s not just that Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei might be a little rougher around the edges than Chicago political bosses, but that Obama himself is not that hardy. Over the course of a very brief political career, he has always had the wind at his back—thanks in large part to an admiring press corps, which has now also proved to be a willing accomplice in crafting the fairy tale of Obama’s secret foreign policy cunning.
The real issue then is this: Why has the administration felt the need to project a world of exciting secret images on the blank screen of his foreign policy? That is, who is the administration defending itself against? Whose criticism are they trying to blunt? Republican opponents, to be sure, as well as the party’s candidate—but more significantly the large part of the American public that expects leadership from its commander in chief. Obama’s handlers are busy behind the curtains making it look like he is a decisive leader because they fear the judgment that will be rendered on the president if the public sizes him up correctly: a character study in ambivalence, a man who can’t commit.