Early in his first term President Obama made clear his approach to foreign policy: Things will naturally improve because he happened to not be George W. Bush. In his first major foreign policy address in Cairo, Egypt the president labeled his election a signal of a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” to be “based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive.”
And yet things have not improved. The world, rather than being cowed by his charisma, is flocking (and fighting) to fill the vacuum being left in the world by the displayed weakness of the United States. The results of President Obama’s timidity were on full display this week in a startlingly bad series of events that set America’s foreign policy back years.
In the Middle East, peace talks broke down between Israel and Palestine. And in Syria, home of President Obama’s much-ballyhooed (and oft-ignored) “red line,” the war continues to rage. And this week brings allegations of yet another chemical weapons attack, this time using chorine gas, which could reveal a major loophole in the agreement to remove weapons from Syria.
John Kerry was forced to give a speech accusing Moscow of “distraction, deception and destabilization” after (surprise) Russia failed to abide by last week’s agreement in Geneva. Indeed the situation in Ukraine has so devolved over the last few weeks that an emboldened Vladimir Putin and is now openly engaging in military drills on the border after threatening that there would be “consequences” to the Kiev government for attempting to quell separatists.
While crises continued to sprout elsewhere, President Obama was in Japan, attempting to finally begin his long-promised “pivot to Asia,” which is going about as well as his many pledges to “pivot to the economy.” But even that trip proved disastrous as President Obama failed to reach a final trade agreement with Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. And while the White House tried to spin the failed meeting as a “breakthrough,” a Japanese minister in the trade talks said “our positions are still far apart.”
And finally, President Obama’s trip to Seoul, South Korea on Friday was marred by North Korea’s preparations to conduct a test of its nuclear weapons. The timing is not coincidence, it’s an intentional middle finger to the United States by an apparently unhinged Kim Jong-un.
“Previously, North Koreans were predictable. Now it’s safe to say they don’t always respond precisely according to type,” Scott Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told U.S. News and World Report. “The thing that makes this challenging is the timing of the threat.”
So what are we to make of all of this?
TIME’s Michael Crowley says the individual disappointments are part of a “larger failure – a failure of political vision.”
The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman says Obama’s foreign policy execution has been “distracted and ambiguous.”
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that “U.S. foreign policy is in troubling disarray” and that the White House’s inability to stay on message “raised questions about American competence and reliability.”
Even the usually-friendly New York Times piled on, asking whether Obama’s weakened domestic stature and failure to follow through on international promises is “encouraging adversaries to press the limits.”
All of which brings us back to President Obama’s speech in Cairo. In that speech, which cast the mold for his foreign policy, he said, “Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. Those needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”
Five years later, we have a lot of words, a dearth of bold action, a clear failure to understand challenges and a demonstrated failure to meet them. President Obama isn’t living up to his own rhetoric. And it’s not only Americans that are noticing.