This article is from this week’s New York Observer. We reprint here.
A month after the German surrender ending the First World War, American President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris to throngs of admirers. After four years of the most destructive war in human history, Europeans looked to Wilson to broker the peace. All over Europe there were parks, squares, streets and railway stations bearing his name. H.G. Wells described the scene in Paris on December 13, 1918 when the president entered the city. “He was transfigured in the eyes of men,” he wrote. “He ceased to be a common statesman; he became a Messiah.”
Like Woodrow Wilson, the arrival of President Barack Obama on the world stage was greeted with a fervor that bordered on religious worship. Despising President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” many looked to Mr. Obama to order the peace.
Like Wilson, candidate Obama had promised to transform international relations: hope would overcome defeatism, diplomacy would replace aggression, a revived United Nations would tame American unilateralism. Gushing at the prospect of an Obama White House, Harvard University’s Joseph Nye spoke for many: “It is difficult to think of any single act that would do more to restore America’s soft power than the election of Obama to the presidency.”
Now, after almost six years, it is difficult to think of a time when American power–soft or hard–was so inconsequential. Indeed, the gulf between Mr. Obama’s vision of the world and the world as we find it is staggering.
The Syrian regime commits war crimes with impunity, creating a refugee crisis not seen since the Second World War. In a spasm of aggression thought a relic of the Cold War, Russia swallows up Crimea and destabilizes eastern Ukraine. The Arab Spring devolves into an endless winter of sectarian violence. Whatever gains U.S. forces made in establishing liberal and humane governments in Afghanistan and Iraq have completely unraveled: security is worse than ever and the one tiny island of pro-American sentiment faces extinction, as Kurdish towns fall to a new strain of virulent jihad. The forces of radical Islamic extremism–supposedly “decimated” a few years ago–are resurgent and threatening governments across the globe.
Many events are beyond any president’s control. Certainly the pathologies that afflict much of the Islamic world are impossible for any nation to cure. And Mr. Obama inherited botched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that severely damaged America’s standing and security in the world.
Nevertheless, the alarming fact remains that Mr. Obama seems not to understand the relationship of power to diplomacy. His vision of foreign policy, immature from the start, appears incapable of rising beyond campaign bromides and false choices. No president has so openly rejected America’s role as “the indispensable nation” in world affairs. The combined result is a leadership vacuum being filled by terror and disorder.