Obama's Foreign Policy: Comedy of Errors
The king and the jester. The pairing is as old as Medieval times and as hilarious as Danny Kaye's portrayal of the perfect clown in The Court Jester. We see it replayed in countless Hollywood remakes and say, "Pass the popcorn!" We do not, however, expect this pairing in our president, especially when he dons the robes of a peerless king at home – suspending laws at will – and plays a feckless fool abroad.
We face several deadly serious problems abroad at this time. They are problems that we can hardly afford to treat as a jester would, although one can argue they have been created by a combination of White House folly and foppery.
Here is where we all find ourselves.
First, we have the president's hopscotch across Europe. Our president has "cautioned Russia that it would face a swift response" if it attacked or "encroached" on a longstanding NATO signatory – as opposed to Ukraine, which is not a part of NATO. Does Mr. Obama really think Mr. Putin has forgotten that NATO exists? That he has forgotten the treaty's central premise – this guarantor of deterrence and peace for decades, on which we and our parents swore our lives? The very same treaty that, led by America's resolve, ended the Soviet Union?
What does Mr. Obama think his kindergarten restatement of NATO's purpose has achieved? Does it not, in an odd and unsettling way, instead lead to a questioning of our resolve, or of the U.S. president's experience, schooling in world affairs, and competence? Does it not reek of "the lady doth protest too much"? Does it not invite from America's doubters another test? Are we really this bad at diplomacy?
Here is another perception. What Mr. Obama is contributing to the international discussion is a confirmation of his own weakness, inexperience, and unconnectedness from world history. At best, he is adding explicit confusion, uncertainty, and nonsensical mouthings in a world that needs to hear clarity. If you must restate the NATO commitment, then do so – but be unambiguous about the military nature of our resolve to protect all NATO members. Anything short of that clarity is an invitation to test America's – or Mr. Obama's – resolve.
And there is this: what the world hears in Mr. Obama’s shaded words is a subtle excuse by Mr. Obama for having so misjudged and misunderstood Ukraine – and now bearing no responsibility for events there. But the questions raised by playing the jester in Putin's pernicious court are serious in other ways. What if Mr. Putin takes Mr. Obama for a "flexible" fool? Suppose he says, The U.S. astronaut presently aboard the space station is not coming down in a Russian spacecraft. Or that the U.S. no longer has access to our own multibillion-dollar investment – the space station – because Russia, our only way up or down after America canceled the U.S. shuttle program, will no longer take Americans there or back. What then, Mr. Obama? Who holds the high cards then?
Will Mr. Obama stamp his feet, read indecisive words from his preloaded teleprompter, or hold his breath until blue? Will he ask China to please help us? Or perhaps let only non-NATO or small NATO countries go to Russia – or parts of them – as long as Putin gives us back our space station and astronauts?
Think about how ironic – and opportune – it must seem to Russia that they can hold Europe hostage to energy reserves, since the U.S. refuses to build the Keystone pipeline, to drill on public lands, or to frack for the energy that would free both America and Europe from reliance on foreign oil. There is something at once surreal and painfully real about this public floundering, this ill-informed and misguided pretense to international leadership, and this internally contradictory set of policies.
Were it all not so serious, I would be inclined to say that Mr. Obama is giving the ever-talented Danny Kaye a run for his money, and that all this convoluted codswallop has finally earned him an Oscar in comedic relief – the final chapter of a slapstick run that began with his receipt of a Nobel Prize for accepting the role of international knave.
But if anyone suggested that we were this deep into such a winning performance and it was no joke – instead a horrible reality, as our nation’s future depends on what happens next – the response would be reflexive. To any person of reason, seeing someone who pretends to play The King at home and The Fool abroad, the response would be, “Surely, you jest!” To which the sober rejoinder would be, “But alas, I do not.”
In short, for all the folly and amateur posturing that has brought this White House no end of derision and ridicule, bipartisan recrimination, and countless days of rude awakening, the world remains a very serious place. It is time that Mr. Obama started treating the world as a dangerous place, not a joyride. Whatever happens on those television shows he so famously spends time watching, this one is painfully real – and we are all in it together. So let's turn off House of Cards, basketball, and golf tips. Let’s get back to governing, cerebral decision-making, geopolitical chess, or at least the History Channel. There is no better place to start than this.
Robert Charles was assistant secretary of state, has written widely on foreign policy and law, taught government oversight and cyber-law at Harvard Extension School, and presently leads a consulting group in Washington, D.C.