One still marvels at the self-delusion of the Norwegian Nobel Committee when it decided in 2009 to bestow the peace prize on President Barack Obama.
The decision was a backhanded swipe at George W. Bush more than an acknowledgment of Obama’s qualities. At the time the new president was only nine months into his first term and had done relatively little of consequence. But for the Nobel Committee, it was necessary to show that the world expected Obama to be very different than his predecessor (and the committee’s implicit identification of itself with “the world” surely displayed Nobel-standard hubris).
Now, with Obama in the early months of his second term, we can see how wrong the committee was. Yes, Obama is hardly a warmonger, and has definitely broken with the Bush style. But in praising the president’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” the committee was thinking of a dynamic internationalism built on laws and activist institutions, where resolutions of global problems demanded commitment from a United States working with myriad partners.
But as Obama showed, being different than Bush hardly means meeting the expectations of a panel of idealistic Scandinavians. Instead, the president has, at best, proven himself to be an amoral minimalist, seemingly unresponsive to human rights abuses and international law, for whom internationalism means that the world should do more so that the United States can do less, as it rebuilds its economy and focuses on gay marriage and gun-control legislation.
Obama has substantial backing at home for this approach. Americans, after a decade of military involvement overseas, have had enough. They prefer to look inwards and wrestle with domestic priorities. Recall that this same insular impulse undermined George H. W. Bush’s re-election bid in 1992, as voters turned against a president more taken by foreign affairs than by American pocketbooks.
Bush could have defended himself by saying that wrapping up the Cold War and removing the Iraqi army from Kuwait necessitated a rather longer attention span than most Americans were willing to concede to overseas matters. When Bill Clinton insisted that “it’s the economy, stupid!” Americans liked what they heard. And when Clinton’s eight years ended, they thought they had found in George W. Bush someone similarly preoccupied with internal issues.
Bush, of course, proved otherwise. But even those who consider him a yahoo don’t realize that the president functioned mainly through international institutions and multilateral contact groups for much of his tenure, particularly in the Middle East. Other than Iraq, indeed because of Iraq, the president usually sought consensus in addressing regional problems. Whether it was the Iranian nuclear file, Palestinian-Israeli talks, the situation in Lebanon after Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, or Afghanistan, Bush was no unilateralist.
And to his credit, when the situation in Iraq began seriously deteriorating in 2006, Bush did not abandon the Iraqi population to a sorry fate. Yet this is precisely what Obama may soon do in Afghanistan, the “right war,” as he draws down American forces there. For all the high regard that people have for Obama, the president has seemed largely unperturbed by threats to peace in the world and the obstacles to collective international action.
Nowhere has this been more evident in Syria, which will one day be seen as a stain on Obama’s legacy. From the start of the conflict, the president has refused to take a lead in fashioning an international response to the conflict. The United Nations has been deadlocked, and Obama has done nothing to break this deadlock. Well over 70,000 people have been killed by a barbaric regime, most of them civilians, yet Obama has not even managed a stirring speech on their tragedy. The president once said that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons were a red line for the United States, and yet he has been largely silent on the Syrian government’s refusal to allow a UN team into the country to ascertain if such weapons were used.
Obama is not truly interested in what is going in the world, and the impact on America’s credibility. He is a detached leader on matters that do not involve Americans. Remember how the president was once viewed as having a global cultural sensibility, with his African father and his time spent in Indonesia as a boy? The reality is quite different. Obama is the man we feared George W. Bush would be: stubbornly unwilling to involve himself in the tribulations of other nations, even if this means abandoning American values.
Underpinning all this is Obama’s failure to formulate a cohesive foreign policy strategy. The president has been good at making loud pronouncements that lead to inaction. There is no sense that he has an integrated, overriding philosophy for dealing with the world. A realist, he has nonetheless skirted issues harming American interests. His secretaries of state have been competent managers, but not people of imagination and vision, who take the long view of foreign policy and tie this into America’s identity as a global actor.
What are the sources of American conduct? The Norwegian Nobel Committee didn’t ask the question, perhaps because they too readily assumed that the answer reflected their own preferences. But the fact is that Obama himself has never answered what America must stand for, so reluctant has he been to be tied down with absolutes.
What crises that appear, the president prefers to sidestep, his high rhetoric concealing the fact that he’s escaping through the back door. Some call this prudence. Others regret a United States for whom evasion has been elevated to the level of a virtue. All pay a price for the instability left by an unwilling America.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He tweets @BeirutCalling.