Hoover Daily Report

Can Obama Run on His Foreign-Policy Record?

via Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In a speech at New York University last week, Vice President Joe Biden laid out the case for the Democratic ticket's re-election: "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive."

Good riddance to bin Laden. That our Navy SEALs killed him is the settlement of an account overdue. The commander in chief who authorized and oversaw that operation deserves his satisfaction—and the country grants it to him. But the public will draw its own subtle line on the exploitation of that event, and it will not abide the SEALs' bravery being used as a campaign prop.

The American people demand more by way of a foreign policy than the killing of bin Laden and the hunting down of Somali pirates. But this administration has done its best to take the vital matter of America's place and interest in the foreign world off the board. The strategic retreats, the concessions made to Iran and Syria, the lack of faith in liberty's place in the order of nations have been hidden and brushed aside.

We had secured gains in Iraq, but they were given up at the altar of the president's political needs. As a candidate, he had promised a complete withdrawal, and he did so at great risk to the future stability of a nascent democracy.

Afghanistan, too, has been neutralized as a political issue: The war is Mr. Obama's and it isn't. To set apart the good war of necessity in Kabul from the bad war of choice in Baghdad, he announced a surge in troop levels but then set a date for withdrawal in 2014. His surprise visit to Afghanistan Tuesday was political inoculation in its purest form.

Dissent, sanctified when it raged against George W. Bush, was now a manifestation of ill will and impatience with a president who had to be given the benefit of the doubt. Those dreaded drones over the Hindu Kush—brutal instruments of war in the Bush presidency—were now legitimate means of combat. The lawyers who hounded the Bush presidency over the rights of jihadists went silent even as our drones killed them at record pace.

The metamorphosis in the Obama worldview was remarkable. He had begun his presidency as a man whose biography and outlook promised to drain the swamps of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world. Three years later, he had pulled back from the Greater Middle East. He took no interest in the fate of liberty in those lands, he turned his back on the Iranians when they rose against despotism in the summer of 2009, and he has given the murderous Assad tyranny in Syria a pass.

You would have thought that the Arab Awakening of 2010-2011 would engage his moral passion. But his aloofness from the big storm that began in Tunisia and swept across Egypt, Libya and now Syria has been nothing short of stunning. It was his bet that our country was worn out by causes beyond our shores, and that for the most part his Republican rivals would present no alternatives of their own.

He heads into November with that complacent view of things. Always the cool, cerebral man unfazed by history's turbulence and pain. The joke was on those in foreign lands, in Paris and Berlin and Cairo, who embraced him as a new kind of American leader.

He had presented himself as a cosmopolitan man—the un-George W. Bush. But the cosmopolitanism was just a veneer. Underneath the affectation of worldliness, there lay a calculating politician with a superficial knowledge. They have caught on in Karachi and Cairo, where the star of 2008-2009 has come down to earth. And they've caught on in Tehran and Damascus, where tyranny has had little to fear from the standard-bearer of American power.

His announcement last week, in a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, that he has created a new Atrocities Prevention Board is testament to this president's penchant for doublespeak and naïveté. It is as though atrocities are like hurricanes and tornadoes that the weather center tracks and anticipates. Meanwhile, there are daily atrocities in the bereaved cities of Syria, the prison cells of Iran.

That General Motors has been rescued is true, but the price paid was far too high. Moreover, it set a precedent at variance with the economic tradition and values of our country. The markets, not the White House, should have administered the treatment. Nor can our national economy be reduced to the tale of GM. A presidency that gave us an unprecedented but largely ineffective stimulus of $825 billion, that hiked federal spending to 24.3% of GDP from 20.8%, and that is set to run a deficit of $1.3 trillion this year, is not one that can ask to be trusted with the store.

Mr. Obama will again plead that he was dealt a difficult hand. He will offer up more populist gimmicks similar to the Buffett Rule singling out "millionaires" for higher taxes. Identity politics will complete the circle. The man who rose to fame and power with a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention claiming the indivisible unity of America will try to put together the fragments of a winning coalition: the African-Americans, the Hispanics, the Jews, and the liberal professional class. The man who once stood for hope and change will divide and conquer. He'll dispatch his vice president to rust-belt states and union strongholds with the standard appeals of the welfare state.

The great, demanding issues—our interests abroad, the regulations and high taxation that stifle our economic creativity, the entitlements and burdens of an aging society, our crushing debt—will have to wait. Grant Mr. Obama his tenacity of purpose. We have not had in recent memory an incumbent who subordinated all matters—and rallied the bureaucracy, including the national security apparatus—to the singular goal of his re-election as Mr. Obama has done.

Mr. Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is the author of "The Syrian Rebellion," out this month from Hoover Institution Press.