The Potemkin Foreign Policy — 1 October 2012

In 1787, Grigory Potemkin, Russian minister and commander of the Crimean conquest, supposedly raised phony villages along the banks of the Dnieper River.  The idea was to fool his Empress, Catherine the Great, into thinking that her new Crimean lands were prosperous and desirable, instead of a desolate wasteland.  Ever since, the term Potemkin village has referred to a false facade erected to put a smiley face on a dismal reality.

It seems to me that President Obama is running a Potemkin foreign policy.  The attractive elements that are constantly emphasized – the killing of Osama bin Laden and the campaign of drone attacks – distract voters’ attention from the broader and far more disappointing reality.

Even those two factors are less impressive than meets the eye.  Bin Laden was a terrific symbolic strike, and we are indubitably better off with him cavorting among the virgins in Paradise.  But he was far from the operational leader of Global Terrorists, Inc.  Al Qaeda has metastasized into wide ranging autonomous cells, which continue to thrive.  Am I the only one who noticed that bin Laden’s audio-taped threats of new strikes over the last few years have largely been followed by…nothing?  It just seemed like he was not pulling the strings.

As to the drones, while it is certainly good to take out the bad guys when you can, the program is not without its negatives.  We find these guys using intelligence from captured operatives.  If we concentrate on dropping bombs on their heads instead of capturing and interrogating them, we will have less intelligence at our disposal going forward to catch the next round of leaders.  In effect, we’re eating up our intelligence seed corn.

Nevertheless, this story line is dear to the hearts over there at Team Obama.  It allows them to don the mantle so uncharacteristic of Democratic leaders – strong on national defense.  As the President himself said at the nominating convention: “Osama bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is on the run.”

That is no doubt one of the reasons why the Administration’s response to the recent terrorist raid on our consulate at Benghazi was such an exercise in denial.  Despite the fact that our intelligence folks knew within a day that the raid had been a preplanned terrorist attack – affirmed in an interview on NPR within days by no less than the President of Libya – it took the administration two weeks to reframe the narrative from a spontaneous riot that ran out of control to a deliberate strike.  I’m not sure even yet that President Obama has admitted what it really was.

I’ll leave it to others to discuss whether this amounted to a cover-up or merely panicked incompetence, or whether they had cause to know beforehand of the threat and passed on the chance to provide more security.  I’m more interested in the broader implications.

This attack, and the anti-American riots that have erupted across the Middle East, have left the impression of a foreign policy in tatters.  It certainly puts the lie to President Obama’s naive and narcissistic idea that he could, by virtue of his own scintillating persona and some soothing words of conciliation, change the image of the United States in the region.

Instead, our adversaries see vacillation and weakness.  The US was hesitant to engage in support of the Libyan revolt until virtually the rest of the world came on board and shamed us into it.  We were hesitant to declare for either our long-standing ally Hosni Mubarak, or for that matter the Egyptian revolutionaries until that dispute was largely decided.  We hesitated to back the Green Revolution in Iran, and the mullahs are still in power.  And we have hesitated to become involved in the Syrian revolt, and twenty thousand civilians have died.  Both friends and foes have taken note – the US has not been decisive in influencing events in the most volatile region in the world.

Frankly, this is in keeping with President Obama’s stated vision.  He is reluctant to see the US as a dominating player; his “apology tours” early in his term were really an announcement that he was prepared to take a more modest, more multilateral role in world events – “leading from behind.”

But the problem with a modest foreign policy is that it generates modest results.  President Obama boasts that he “ended” the war in Iraq, and that we are on course to “end” the war in Afghanistan “on schedule” in 2014.  There is no talk of achieving objectives, much less of “victory” – a word you never hear Obama say in a foreign policy context.  One wonders, if ending the war were the policy objective, why would one ever start a war?

And indeed, the policy results of focusing on ending conflicts have not been good.  As Frederick and Kimberly Kagan point out in the National Review, Obama’s haste in leaving Iraq has left us with next to no leverage and no ability to control events in that vital country.  What should have been a strong US ally in the region has gradually become a satrap to Iran, and risks becoming a failed state – developments that trivialize and betray the sacrifice of the brave soldiers who served there.

Similarly, the situation in Afghanistan goes from bad to worse, as many predicted the moment Obama announced a targeted withdrawal date.  It beggars the imagination to think that anyone would side with the US against the Taliban, who will remain in the neighborhood long after the US has gone.  Hence the predictable increase in green-on-blue attacks, as Afghanis stake out their bona fides to impress their future masters.

Against all this, we have the picture of a President who isn’t really all that interested.  Since the beginning of his Presidency, he has skipped over half the daily intelligence briefings presented by his top intelligence officials.  The day after our Ambassador was killed in Libya, he jetted off to Las Vegas for a fund raiser.  When world leaders gathered in New York for the UN General Assembly, Obama couldn’t be bothered to meet either with Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whose country faces a mortal threat from Iran, with the window for action rapidly narrowing, or with Mohamed Morsi, new President of Egypt, whose country is erupting in anti-American riots.  Instead, he shows up for a ladies’ chat show on TV.

President Obama may feel that getting Osama bin Laden meant he was “one and done”, his bona fides established.  But as the rioters in Cairo chanted, “Obama, we are all Osama!”  The job is far from done.

And a few high-profile accomplishments don’t hide the fact that this President’s foreign policy is one of disengagement and disinterest.

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