Left-wing realpolitik has no interest in the world beyond America’s borders.
Conventional explanations for Barack Obama ’s foreign policy need an update. Mr. Obama’s famous indecision or antipathy to America’s traditional postwar role in the world all have had their moment. They inform an understanding of this president’s worldview—up to a point.
We have reached that point. They are not enough.
In just the past few weeks, the following events have happened. They are a blur of chaos and brutality.
Islamic State videotaped its beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and Egypt’s bombed Islamic State camps in retaliation. An ISIS sympathizer sprayed bullets into a free-speech meeting in Copenhagen. A 4,000-man army post in Yemen was overrun by fighters from al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. Russian-supported rebels in Ukraine commenced an artillery barrage on Kiev’s forces inside the city of Debaltseve after the grand cease-fire brokered by Germany and France.
Jordan’s King Abdullah asked the U.S. to send aircraft parts and munitions after ISIS immolated a caged Jordanian pilot. Nigeria’s homicidal Islamic jihadist group, Boko Haram, extended its assaults into Niger and Chad. Both Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi separately called on the United Nations, of all things, to organize a coalition to clean up Libya. A Jewish cemetery in France was smashed to pieces.
The reaction of the U.S. government to all this?
The White House this week assembled a “summit” on “countering violent extremism,” where on Wednesday Mr. Obama restated the difference between Islam and the perversion of Islam.
Ukraine’s embattled army, encircled in the strategic railway city of Debaltseve by rebels using Russian artillery and tanks, desperately needed defensive military equipment from the U.S. They didn’t get it. On Tuesday Vladimir Putin said they should surrender. On Wednesday, hours before Mr. Obama spoke to the extremism summit, they gave up.
Islamic State’s videotaped barbarism expands, but the U.S. commitment against them in Iraq and Syria will not move beyond limited airstrikes.
Nigeria, like Libya and Iraq, is a nation of vast oil revenue for whoever controls it. Nigeria’s chance of getting support from the Obama administration before it falls into chaos is zero, no matter how many girls Boko Haram kidnaps.
It is a mistake to think that Mr. Obama’s passivity or indecision are sufficient explanation. What is on offer here is the American left’s version of realpolitik. The decision by the Obama White House not to deploy American resources is thought-out, brutal and unapologetic.
President Obama in his Feb. 6 national-security statement explained what he is doing—or not doing. He was precise and clear:
“We have to make hard choices among many competing priorities and we must always resist the overreach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.”
Short version: He’s not spending real money on any of this. Get over it.
There is an important difference between left-wing realpolitik and the conservative realpolitik normally associated with Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. The conservatives’ version was about making choices among competing uses of American military resources abroad. Left-wing realpolitik has no serious interest in the world beyond America’s borders.
The only realism the left admits to is what it sees as a U.S. beset—forever—by poverty, economic injustice and “unmet needs.” Thus Mr. Obama produces a $3.99 trillion budget to end “mindless austerity.” The world beyond this is a footnote.
In her speech last week at the Brookings Institution, National Security Adviser Susan Rice made this priority clear: “Before I go through the elements of this strategy, I want to note how our approach may differ from what others may recommend. We believe in the importance of economic growth, but we insist upon investing in the foundations of American power: education and health care; clean energy and basic research.”
The Democratic left’s worldview was defined forever by the Vietnam War. LBJ’s budget got caught between guns for Vietnam and butter for the Great Society. Barack Obama is refusing to be trapped by this dilemma. The Obama legacy will be about butter, and a bedeviled world can take the hindmost.
This is foreign-policy reductionism, and it has consequences.
One, occurring now, is the functional death of human rights, an achievement claimed by Democratic liberal internationalism. The rescue of the Yazidis from genocide was an act forced by political necessity.
Once you’re out of the world (“competing priorities”), serious strategy becomes impossible to shape or execute. The Obama anti-ISIS “coalition” is essentially a pick-up basketball team without a coach. That video of Mr. Obama shooting air baskets in the Oval Office and giving himself a fist-pump for the effort about sums up the U.S.’s virtual foreign policy.
Leftist realpolitik—melting guns so it can churn more butter—may survive a pullout from the world in normal times. But it’s not going to hold for the next two years, not at this pace, not with Islam’s jihadists using social media to make all of us party to the de-civilizing of the world.
Eventually Barack Obama will be forced to act, or his presidency will erode politically, taking many Democrats with him.
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