Just before he was elected president in 2008, Barack Obama declared, “We are just five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” He may not succeed in his aim to transform the domestic landscape. Instead his legacy may be a different transformation entirely: a tectonic shift in America’s position in the world, diminishing America’s status abroad to its weakest international profile in more than a century. As the Great Recession became shorthand for the deep, prolonged recession that was triggered by the global financial crisis, so the president’s serial retreats abroad may come collectively to be known as the Great Retreat.
The momentous consequences of the president’s policy of retreat are already manifested as 180-degree reversals in three theaters of conflict: the Mideast, Europe, and the Pacific. That these are well underway is evident. That they can be reversed by a successor administration wishing to reversal the reversals is far from evident. To the contrary, it is highly unlikely.
Mideast Reversal. Barack Obama inherited a region where since 1973 America had been the dominant international global player. Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 led to the peace of Camp David, a cold peace between Israel and its formerly most formidable ally, but at least an end to military conflict. After the 1993 Oslo accords and the 1994 pact with Jordan, Israelis saw peace in their time. But it was not to be. Palestinian perfidy and intransigence, fueled by raw hatred of Jews and a desire to extinguish the Jewish presence in the Mideast, has put paid to hopes for peace. Except, that is, for Team Obama, which pines for Israel to surrender all lands it annexed in 1967—though emphatically not required by UN Security Council Resolution 242 (Nov. 1967).
In 2009 Team Obama was handed a golden opportunity to transform the Mideast when Iranians rose en masse to protest the fraudulent re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had openly called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” Instead of backing the revolutionaries, who had caught the regime badly off guard, we placed our bet with the regime, via negotiations, to end their nuclear program. Nearly six years later Iran is, by virtual consensus, closer to a bomb than it was six years ago. Iran recently unveiled a monster ballistic missile, clearly capable of reaching America’s eastern seaboard from inside Iran. And in 2013 Iran launched a 4,400-lb. payload into Earth orbit. Thus Iran is putting into place all the elements to give it a military nuclear capability. The Obama administration has already conceded to Iran a right to enrich uranium, though not found in the Nonproliferation Treaty. Thus Iran bids fair, if it crosses the nuclear threshold, to become the dominant regional power. Saudi Arabia has indicated it will buy A-bombs from cash-starved Pakistan. Kuwait is sure to follow, and as well perhaps Qatar and Egypt. All this, should it come to pass, is certain to trigger a regional nuclear arms race.
In 2011, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood hijacked Egypt’s Facebook Revolution. Following the 1933 Nazi revolutionary model, the MB won a free democratic election and made common cause with two extreme religious parties. (The MB is a political—Islamist—organization.) They then combined, as did the Nazis in 1933, with two other extremist coalition parties to create a totalitarian state. After a popular uprising put one-third of Egypt’s 90-million population in the streets, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi seized power and outlawed the MB. Despite al-Sisi forming a de facto alliance with Israel to fight Hamas and other Islamist terrorists in the Sinai, the president obdurately refused to side with al-Sisi. Apparently Obama prefers an elected totalitarian Islamist government to the hero of a popular revolution.
In Libya the administration elected to intervene halfheartedly, helping—albeit, “leading from behind”—topple Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria Team Obama dithered for two years, as Islamist insurgents infiltrated and hijacked what had originally been a moderate, peaceful uprising against Stalinist thug Bashar al-Assad. After scrapping red lines, Team Obama invited Russia in and accepted tacitly an outcome it had earlier deemed unacceptable: allowing Assad to remain in power. Syria, through Iran’s surrogate terror group Hezbollah, remains in control of southern Lebanon, thus nullifying the 2005 Cedar Revolution the West failed to safeguard.
Iraq was planted in the Western camp until Obama cut and ran, declining to pursue an eminently achievable status-of-forces (SOFA) agreement of the kind his predecessor had obtained. Now the central government tilts towards Iran. Meanwhile the Kurds, potentially a strong, pro-West, moderate, oil-rich Arab state—are scorned by an administration fixated on preserving boundary lines drawn nearly a century ago to serve the parochial convenience of colonial powers. Team Obama continues to court, to little effect, an emerging Islamist Turkey. Formerly a strong NATO member, Turkey is sliding away. The net is that Russia is now the top outside player in the Mideast, supplanting America’s 42-year premier status.
Europe Reversal. Barack Obama inherited a Europe more than a decade freed from decades of Communist tyranny; the former Warsaw Pact satellite countries thus revered Ronald Reagan. In less than one year Vladimir Putin has called the very survival of NATO itself into question. Months before Obama’s election, Russia had invaded Georgia, in August 2008—during the Beijing Olympics, no less. Putin’s opening was made by two events: France and Germany objecting to accepting Ukraine for candidate NATO membership, and the Bush administration’s preoccupation with Mideast matters. Though thus forewarned, Team Obama ignored Russia’s move, and proclaimed a “reset” with Russia, lifting sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Georgia. In 2014 Vladimir Putin made his move, invading and re-annexing the Crimea that in 1954 Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev had ceded. Since then Putin has escalated the war while America and the West have sent minimal arms and humanitarian aid. Mr. Putin is not impressed.
And thus the Baltics tremble. Should Putin forcibly annex one or more Russian-speaking provinces across the common border Russia shares with Estonia and Latvia, the other 26 NATO countries will be obligated under Article 5 of the 1949 NATO Treaty to respond as if their own country had been invaded. America’s Article 5 obligation—the most solemn one America has undertaken since the end of World War II 70 years ago—means that America must respond by force if necessary to eject the invader, equally as if Russian troops were to invade “Little Odessa” in Brooklyn. If Obama fails, for any reason, to lead a NATO coalition to fully restore the independent status of Baltic lands Russia annexes, the NATO alliance—and all other U.S. alliances around the globe—will be hollowed out overnight.
Pacific Reversal. President Obama inherited a region where since 1972 America had been the dominant player, despite its defeat in Vietnam. In 1972 President Richard Nixon and Chinese modern-day Stalinist emperor Mao Zedong signed a pact restoring diplomatic relations, finessing the final status of Taiwan and creating a geopolitical bulwark against Moscow’s Asian expansionist designs. China’s move was prompted by fear that Moscow would launch a pre-emptive strike against China’s nuclear facilities. So it sought—and received—shelter under the umbrella of America’s extended nuclear deterrence. China’s recent moves in increasing forces able to invade the Senkakus, coastal islands legally under Japanese suzerainty, could trigger a war with Japan; if so, the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty with Japan obligates America to intervene. Should America fail to do so, key regional allies like Australia will look for other geostrategic arrangements. And our failure to honor a treaty commitment would reverberate in Europe as well, undermining NATO. Israel would equally take notice of diminished American reliability.
Irreversible Reversals? Not since Woodrow Wilson took America into World War I on April 2, 1917—perhaps not since Teddy Roosevelt put America squarely on the global map by brokering the peace that ended the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war—will America’s world standing be so diminished as after the Obama years. Restoration of trust by a new president runs up against a stark reality that did not confront Ronald Reagan in 1981: voters corrected their mistake in electing Jimmy Carter in 1976, by electing Reagan in a landslide in 1980 and re-electing him by an epic landslide in 1984. Voters, this time, not only elected Barack Obama in 2008; they doubled down on their bet in 2012.
Consider, too, the growing record of American perfidy at the expense of allies. In 1975 we precipitously departed Vietnam, as Vietnamese supporters sought a foothold on the rooftop of our embassy, leaving those who bet their lives on us facing concentration camp or outright execution—or a perilous journey in makeshift boats on the high seas. In 1991, smashingly victorious in the Gulf War, we stood by with the world’s by-far most lethal military force, as Saddam’s brutal troops massacred those who bet their lives on President Bush 41’s call to rise up and shake off the tyrant. No wonder when our troops arrived in southern Iraq in 2003 they were not welcomed with open arms. In 1993 we departed Somalia after 18 of our soldiers—including three who received, posthumously, the Congressional Medal of Honor—were killed and 75 wounded in a firefight (memorialized in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down). In 2011 Barack Obama walked out of Iraq, leaving its future to chance; now it is a central haven to Islamist terror groups. And now we are largely exiting Afghanistan, despite its fate being increasingly parlous, and despite our earlier promises to stay.
The bottom line is that America is surrendering its post-World War II position as keeper of Pax Americana. If replaced at all, it will be by a totalitarian power or other hostile powers. Failing a new dominant power imposing order, the world will spiral vertiginously into ever-deeper chaos. Grave dangers—nuclear, cyber, terror, inter-country and regional conflict, and possibly a global nuclear conflagration, could come to pass, threatening our civilization itself.
Thus, at a time when the currency of American geopolitical credibility is needed most, we have a president whose laxity virtually ensures our fortunes will be in historic geostrategic decline—perhaps irreversible. A poorer, less secure America could well be our future.